Working with the Pros: Tips for Communicating with Healthcare Providers

By Lisa M. Petsche

If you are caring for a relative with a chronic illness, you may come in contact with a variety of health care providers – doctors, nurses and allied professionals such as physical therapists and occupational therapists – in various settings: home, clinic, hospital and perhaps even long-term care.

These days, health care is viewed as a partnership between patient and provider, with both parties responsible for ensuring a constructive relationship. Patients and caregivers – also now referred to as health care consumers – are taking a more active role than ever in this regard.

Good communication is essential, of course, to any positive relationship. Following are some ways you can do your part to make the most of interactions with health care professionals.

  • Prepare questions in advance of phone conversations and meetings, and prioritize them.
  • If you or your relative has a hearing or vision impairment, let the person know at the outset of the conversation. (You may need to remind them in subsequent contacts.)
  • Share information that will help them to better understand and assist your relative: medical history, relevant social history, lifestyle, abilities and limitations, temperament, likes and dislikes.
  • Educate yourself about your relative’s health condition(s), to facilitate communication with professionals. Don’t try to be an expert, though. While there’s a wealth of medical information readily available to consumers these days – especially via the Internet – and it’s good to be informed, don’t act as if you know more than the professional does. Be tactful if you wish to challenge findings or recommendations. For example, it’s less threatening to say, “I’ve read about a new therapy called X; what do you think of it for my mother’s situation?” rather than, “Why aren’t you doing X?”
  • Educate yourself about the roles of involved professionals, and inquire about their goals and plans for your relative. Adjust your expectations if necessary, or try to negotiate a different plan of care.
  • Ensure you are dealing with the right person by briefly stating the nature of any questions or concerns. If they can’t help you, ask them to direct you to someone who can – get a name, title and phone number, as well as times the person is usually available (some staff may work part-time).
  • Ensure the person has time to talk if you have numerous questions or a major concern. If they don’t, ask them to schedule an appropriate block of time for you.
  • When making telephone contact, be prepared to leave a concise voice mail message if the person is not available. Include the date and time, your name, your relative’s name and your relationship to him or her, the nature of your call (in one sentence), your daytime phone number and the best time to reach you. Speak slowly and clearly. If either of you is heard to reach, set an appointment to talk via phone or in person.
  • Write down key information provided during conversations and conferences (keep a note pad and pen handy). Request a layperson’s explanation if you don’t understand medical jargon, and ask for clarification when instructions aren’t clear. Summarize information to check the accuracy of your interpretation.
  • Recognize that some of your questions – for example, “Why did this happen to my father?” or “Will he get better?” – may not have easy answers.
  • Maintain good communication with other involved family members, keeping them up-to-date on your relative’s status, activities and plans. It’s not a good use of professionals’ time to have to address similar questions or concerns with multiple people; this takes them away from direct patient work. If necessary, set up a conference call or request a family meeting.
  • Be forthcoming about what your relative and you need and expect – don’t assume others know. Learn to be assertive and proactive in your role as advocate.
  • Address a concern directly with the relevant care provider. Express it as calmly as possible, and in a timely fashion. Provide detail and include an example or two; prepare notes if you tend to become flustered. Involve the person’s supervisor only if the issue doesn’t get resolved.
  • If a situation causes you significant distress, try to compose yourself before addressing your concern – otherwise, it’s difficult to have a constructive discussion. Depending on the issue and the number of people involved, you may wish to request a meeting. If you’re anxious or angry, bring along a relative or friend – preferably someone less emotional – for support and to help you stay focused. Avoid accusations and generalizations, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “Nobody cares about my mother.” Whenever possible, suggest solutions. Be courteous and give others the benefit of the doubt; expect to be treated likewise. Avoid shouting and making threats, which only exacerbate a problem, alienating you from others.
  • Keep in mind that you and your relative’s health care providers are partners, even if you don’t always speak the same language or agree on how best to help him. Do your best to work with them, rather than against them.
  • If you blow up and later regret it, apologize in order to get communication back on track. Rest assured professionals understand that sometimes frustration or caregiver stress causes people to overreact or otherwise behave uncharacteristically.
  • Express appreciation when you are pleased with the care your relative is receiving – a little goes a long way in forging a positive relationship.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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