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How to Get the Most out of Your Doctor Visits

Understanding Health Information at Your Doctor Visits


Updated June 24, 2011

Doctor visits

It is important to understand medical information at doctor visits.

Image (c): John Paul Titlow (Flickr)

Have you ever left the doctor's office and wondered "What in the world did he just say?" If so, you aren't alone. Even if you felt like you understood what your doctor was telling you at your doctor's visit, it may not all make sense by the time you get home.

According to several recent studies, a majority of American adults feel like they do not understand the information they receive at doctor's visits, whether it is related to an illness, a new piece of equipment or medications. Researchers call this health literacy. This is a problem regardless of education, income, age or ethnicity.

Chances are you have probably had difficulty understanding medical information at some point in your life. Even health issues as seemingly simple as the cold and flu can be misunderstood. For example,

Many people also turn to the internet when they do not get the information they need from their doctors about their health issues. This can be a good thing, but you have to know what to look for and what to trust. Remember, just because it is on the internet (or on TV, in the newspaper...) does not make it true.

So, what can you do about it? Believe it or not, there are things you can and should do. Ultimately, your health is your responsibility and not understanding what is happening to you should not be an option.

How to Communicate With Your Doctor

  1. Write a list of questions and concerns before your doctor's visit.
    Many people get into the office and forget what they wanted to ask their doctor. The best way to avoid this problem is to write out a list of questions and concerns before you go. Don't be afraid to pull it out in front of the doctor and the nurse.

  2. Write down instructions and information your doctor gives you before you leave the office.
    If you have a new diagnosis, write it down and get the correct spelling. Also ask what further tests or treatments you may need and write those down too. You can then look them up again later when you have had time to absorb the information.

  3. Repeat the instructions back or practice what your doctor showed you in front of him.
    Repetition will help both of you know if you understand the instructions for taking medications or using new equipment.

  4. Ask for written materials about your diagnosis, medication or condition.
    Most doctors' offices have written information on common diagnoses. If he doesn't have it readily available, chances are he can print it up fairly quickly. That way you are sure to get information that he believes is accurate and reliable.

  5. If the doctor has explained something to you but you don't understand, ask him to clarify.
    It is easy for medical professionals to forget how to explain things to patients. To them, it is easier to explain it in medical terminology, which to most people, may as well be a foreign language.

  6. If your doctor's explanation just isn't making sense to you, try asking his nurse.
    Just hearing a different person explain it in a slightly different way may help it make sense. She should be giving you the same information, but it may be easier to understand. But be sure you are actually talking to a nurse and not the receptionist or other office personnel.

  7. If you have questions after you get home, call your doctor back.
    You should be able to get an answer from either the doctor or the nurse within 24 hours. They are there to be sure you are comfortable, no question is too small.

  8. If your doctor is in a hurry, but you don't feel comfortable with what he has told you, tell him you do not understand.
    He should either sit down and talk with you or schedule a time (within the next day or two) that he can sit down with you. If he is not willing to do this, find a new doctor. Any doctor who is not willing to take the time to make sure his patients are comfortable does not deserve your money.


Prescription Labels Often Misunderstood. HealthDay 01 Dec 06. Medline Plus. 02 Feb 07.

Brody, J. E. "The importance of knowing what the doctor is talking about." Jan 30 2007. The New York Times 30 Jan 07. 02 Feb 07.

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  5. Doctor Visits - Understanding Your Doctor and Getting the Most out of Doctor Visits

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