Do you ever feel like you and your doctor are speaking different languages? You’re not the only one.
According to a Yale University study of insurance claims, out of the 60 percent of women with menopause symptoms who sought medical attention, nearly three-quarters of them were untreated. And it’s possible that poor communication between patients and doctors is the culprit.
It’s no secret that patient-doctor relationships can be tough to navigate, but that’s even more true for women, who often have longer wait times than men despite reporting more frequent and severe pain. And when you consider how personal menopause symptoms are, it’s easy to see why women can have more difficulty communicating with their doctors.
Before you throw in the towel and begin the search for a new clinician, there are a few steps you can take to ensure you’re doing everything you can to advocate for yourself and foster a stronger relationship with your doctor.
We spoke with Nancy Phelan about what she learned from her career in biopharma and as a caregiver for her family. Here are her tips for improving communication with your doctor.
1. Go prepared.
The first step in good communication with your doctor is preparing yourself for your appointment. That means making a list of your questions and concerns, as well as your goals for the appointment.
“Write down your list of issues if you need to,” Phelan says. “Be able to articulate in clear, easy-to-use language what your problem is. If you feel like you’re not being heard, look the physician in the eye and say, ‘I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m trying to say to you.’ If you are not clear on something, ask the doctor to write it down or even draw a picture so you can understand.”
As a bonus, preparing for your appointment will help you feel more confident once you’re in the office.
2. Build a relationship.
Little things like making eye contact (and insisting your doctor do the same) can go a long way in patient-doctor communication. You need your doctor to understand who you are and how your menopause symptoms are affecting your daily life. Be sure to give context around your symptoms. It’s one thing to say you’re having severe hot flashes, but it’s another to say that your hot flashes are so severe that they’re making you miss days at work.
“Do your best to build a relationship with your physician so that they can understand who you are and exactly what your symptoms are,” Phelan says. “Everyone is different, so it’s important for your doctor to get to know you, your specific issues, and how they impact your life.”
3. Be concise.
We often have limited time with our doctors. Make the best use of your time and your doctor’s time during every appointment.
“I think physicians are phenomenal. But they’re seeing more patients; practices are getting bought up; they’re under massive pressure,” says Phelan. “Most of them are no longer independent and working for themselves. They’re working for these large systems. They’re doing their best. There is a higher level of planning and advocacy required on the part of patients than ever before.”
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the language you use when you talk to your doctor and describe your symptoms.
“You’ve got to be concise,” she says. “Physicians don’t have as much time as they use to, and patients and physicians are not communicating in the same way. They’re describing disease differently. They’re describing treatments differently. We all mean well, but we’re just not syncing up.”
4. See someone else.
If you’ve made an effort to be prepared, concise, and relationship focused and you still feel as though your doctor isn’t listening, there are a few things you can do.
“You can always go talk to someone more senior on the staff,” Phelan says. “And if you’re struggling repeatedly to connect with a physician, I think you need to look in the mirror and say, ‘What do I need to do differently so that my concerns are being expressed in a way that the person I’m communicating with can understand them?’ If you’ve done that and you’re still not getting anywhere, find another physician.”
Your health is a priority. If you have challenges communicating with your doctor, you have every right to look elsewhere for someone you can talk to more easily.