DEAR DOCTOR: Is there anything I can do to keep my doctor from interrupting me? He’s a really nice man, and I know he’s busy, but I never get to share all of my concerns or have my questions answered before the visit is over.
DEAR READER: You’ve brought up an issue that’s getting a lot more attention than it once did, and one that doctors in all specialties are actively working to address. We do have some specific strategies, but first, allow us to nerd out a bit.
A study on this subject with a statistic that often gets cited – that on average, a patient speaks for about 17 seconds before the physician cuts in – was conducted all the way back in 1984. Subsequent studies, which used larger sample sizes, highlighted the same challenge. These days, the amount of time a patient gets to speak uninterrupted has edged up about 50 percent. But considering that’s now in the neighborhood of 25 seconds, it doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.
So what can you do?
Begin your appointment with a mission statement. Politely tell your doctor that, before he or she responds, you would like the chance to lay out all your questions and concerns. This may sound like you’re asking permission for an interminable monologue. However, in studies where patients were allowed to speak without interruption, it took them between 90 seconds and two minutes to present their information.
So you’ve said your piece. Now, it’s your turn to help things move smoothly.
Begin by listing the things you want the doctor to address. Perhaps you have a specific medical issue, and you also want general advice about another topic or two. Make that clear. This will let your doctor mentally prepare for how best to spend the remaining time in your appointment.
If you do have a specific medical issue, be prepared with a concise and fact-filled narrative. Tell him or her when the symptoms began, how and when they changed or escalated, and what they feel like. A burning sensation, a stabbing pain, an ache that occurs when you move a certain way – all is useful diagnostic information.
When you’re finished speaking and are ready to listen, let your doctor know. And when he or she begins to answer, pay attention. Take notes. If something that is said needs follow-up questions, make a note of it. As the visit ends, use your notes to quickly summarize the information and instructions. This way, you both know you’re on the same page.
Sometimes you do wind up with follow-up questions once the appointment ends. Here at UCLA we have an electronic communications portal that our patients can use to reach us. Perhaps your medical provider has something similar. Ask for a few minutes with a nurse or physician’s assistant. And don’t be afraid to make another appointment if you feel that’s what you need.
Life in a doctor’s office moves quickly these days. We understand that speaking up can be uncomfortable for you (and perhaps even for your doctor). But when you do, we believe both of you will come away with a greater sense of satisfaction.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.