Effective Patient-Doctor Communications

There are more challenges than ever in today's healthcare environment. Limited appointment time, the ability of patients to do their own research which then needs to be discussed with practitioners, and the numbers of patients who are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed; these challenges and others make effective communications between patients and their practitioners more important than ever.

Doctor and patient shaking hands
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Good communication really boils down to two things: respect for each other, and the ability to manage expectations.

The following will help you understand how to be a good communicator yourself, and what to expect from a practitioner who is a good communicator.

A Patient Who Is a Good Communicator

Will be mindful of the medical professional's limited time. A 2018 survey regarding time primary care physicians spend with their patients revealed some patients had less than nine minutes with their healthcare providers, while others had between 17-24 minutes. The discrepancy may be due to the nature of the visit, or even health insurance coverage. Regardless of the difference, it makes the most sense for us patients to prepare ahead for the probability that the visit could be shorter than we expect.

Will be concise in his communication. A consise communicator will prepare carefully for meetings with his practitioner. A well-organized patient prepares questions ahead of appointments and sticks to the facts. With so little appointment time, you'll want to be sure your healthcare provider has all the important information about your problems and has time to answer all your questions.

Will ask the meaning of words and concepts he doesn't understand. Medical professionals are trained to use a lexicon of medical terminology that baffles patients. General medical terms are used by all healthcare providers or many specialties. Other words and concepts are specific to body systems, conditions, diseases or treatments. In all cases, you'll walk away much more satisfied from your visit, having learned what you need to know if you stop your practitioner and ask for a definition or description when he uses a concept or term you don't understand.

If interrupted will ask the practitioner to stop and listen respectfully. Some studies say it takes only 18 to 23 seconds before a healthcare provider interrupts his patient. If your practitioner interrupts you, it can feel like an insult. Politely ask him to listen to your entire list of symptoms, or to let you ask your entire question. Sometimes a simple gesture such as gently holding up your hand will alert your healthcare provider to stop and listen to you.

Will ask his practitioner what to expect next. No matter what point you are in your transition through the system: before, during or after diagnosis or treatment, asking your healthcare provider what happens next will help you understand what is going on immediately, and what your outcomes might be. For example, if your practitioenr says he is sending you for a medical test, you might ask what he expects the results will be, or what the possible outcomes might be, and what they would mean. If he can manage your expectations, you will have more confidence about the process and its outcomes.

Will know which questions to ask the medical professional, and which to save for others. Your healthcare provider is the person who should answer any of your medical questions. But other questions, such as directions to a testing center, or the time of your next appointment, or where you should park your car, can be asked of others on the medical professional's staff. That conserves your short appointment time for the important, medical aspects of your care.

A Healthcare Provider or Practitioner Who Is a Good Communicator

Has respect for her patient. Good healthcare providers understand that a sick or injured patient is highly vulnerable. Being respectful goes a long way toward helping that patient explain symptoms, take responsibility for decision-making, and complying with instructions.

Has the ability to share information in terms her patients can understand. It's OK to use medical terminology and complicated terms, but they should be accompanied by an explanation at the same time.

Doesn't interrupt or stereotype her patients. It's easy for all of us to interrupt when we know time is short or we are in a hurry, but a practitioner who is a good communicator knows that if it can't be done right, to begin with, it will need to be done over. Listening carefully and respectfully will go a long way toward better outcomes for the patient.

Has the ability to effectively manage patients' expectations. By helping their patients understand what the next steps will be and what the possible outcomes and their ramifications might be, the healthcare provider can go a long way toward helping that patient understand his problem.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. statistica. Amount of time U.S. primary care physicians spent with each patient as of 2018.

  2. Phillips KA, Ospina NS. Physicians interrupting patients. JAMA. 2017;318(1):93-94. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.6493

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.