Imagine this scenario: You haven’t been feeling quite right for several months and you’re waiting in your doctor’s office to get the results of some tests that should shed light on what’s wrong. You’re nervous, a little bit scared, and you didn’t sleep well the night before due to your anxiety about the results. You’re kept waiting over an hour before the doctor sees you, and when the doctor finally delivers your diagnosis, it’s incomprehensible due to medical terms you don’t understand and statistics and percentages that don’t seem to add up.
Communication scenarios like this—a counterproductive concentration of misunderstandings, frustrations, and anxieties—are unfortunately not uncommon in healthcare settings, and are especially problematic because medical conversations are often highly consequential. Sadly, effective communication is sometimes hardest to attain when we need it the most.
Here are six ideas to improve your communication in healthcare settings:
1. Take someone with you. Don’t expect to remember everything you are told or which questions you should ask in important medical conversations. Another set of ears can do wonders for your comprehension, especially when you aren’t feeling well or when you are anxious.
2. Record the conversation. Even if someone else is in the room with you, record the conversation if you can. Tell your doctor that having a recording will calm your nerves and ensure that you gather all of the relevant information. Your doctor is unlikely to object to this reasoning and request. Refer back to the recording later to improve your understanding of the diagnosis and prognosis. You can sometimes pick up an important point or two when you listen to the conversation after the fact.
3. Ask lots of questions. Of everyone. Healthcare providers are usually in the profession because they want to help people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your healthcare team, and not just the doctor. Nurses and physician’s assistants can be invaluable sources of information and clarification. Write down any questions you have in advance, and give a copy to the person going with you to make sure that you remember to ask them.
4. Don’t let delays agitate you. Healthcare environments are notorious for keeping people waiting, and unfortunately for patients and providers alike, lengthy delays almost always create an unfavorable communication dynamic. Delays cause frustration and indignation as patients chafe against the loss of control and the nonverbal message that their time doesn’t matter. Even the most saintly of patients and family members occasionally let their frustration spill over into their conversations. Use the ideas from our discussion of VCR techniques to improve your mental state during delays so you won’t carry unnecessary negative emotions into your important medical conversations.
5. Fight your mental fatigue. Long periods of elevated emotional activity—like being kept waiting for an hour to receive a diagnosis you are worried about—can cause your mind to become foggy and apathetic as emotional overworking leads to mental exhaustion at the very time that you want to be at your cognitive best. This mental sluggishness is partly influenced by low blood sugar, so bring snacks with you in case brain fatigue starts to set in. You might also walk around the waiting room to get your blood flowing faster, or divert your mind with a book or a movie on your laptop. Anything that prevents your mind from ruminating about the potential diagnosis or the fact that you are being kept waiting will help prevent negative emotions from exhausting your mind before the medical conversation even begins.
6. Read another entry. Supplement the advice from this entry with the five tips from our previous discussion about improving comprehension in high-stakes conversations.
The ideas above can help increase your comprehension and reduce the misunderstandings you experience during important discussions about your health. Bring your best communication with you to the doctor’s office, because you’ll often need it to overcome the structural impediments like delays, anxiety, and jargon that can make medical communication so challenging.
First posted on mouthpeaceconsulting.com.