6 Tips to Get Your Doctor to Listen to You

Ever feel like your doctor wasn’t listening to you? Guest author Dr. Leana Wen has 6 expert tips to make sure your health concerns are heard and addressed.

Leana Wen, MD
5-minute read
Episode #121

6 Tips to Get Your Doctor to Listen to You

Have you ever gone to the doctor and felt like he or she wasn't listening to you? Have you tried to tell your story, only to be interrupted with a checklist of questions such as: Do you have chest pain, shortness of breath, fevers, cough, and so forth? Have you ever felt ignored, and left the appointment thinking that your doctor never understood why you came to him in the first place?

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you feel dissatisfied or frustrated by your healthcare, now is the time to figure out how to improve things.

Studies show that 80% of diagnoses can be made based on your history alone. That’s better than any test or combination or tests out there! Yet, doctors these days spend less and less time listening. “Cookbook medicine” is becoming prevalent, with doctors resorting to checklists of yes/no questions rather than really listening to what’s going on with you. You have to make sure that your concerns are addressed—and even before that, to make sure your story is heard so that you can avoid unnecessary medical tests and get to the correct diagnosis faster. Only then can you get your health issue resolved adequately. 

Here are 6 tips for getting your doctor to listen to you:

Tip #1: Answer the doctor’s pressing questions first. Many doctors are accustomed to relying on a checklist of questions that has to be answered before they can move on. Help your doctor by answering these questions first. If the doctor wants you to describe the location of your chest pain, describe it specifically (“It’s in the middle of my chest, right here”). If she wants to know what you took to make it better, tell them your medications exactly (“I took two baby aspirins. It didn’t help”). Your doctor may have to ask these questions because it’s how they process information, so help them out and address their questions up front. Check out my guide on the information you should always bring to your doctors’ appointments.

Tip #2: Add a narrative response at the end of closed-ended questions. If your doctor persists on asking closed-ended questions, add a narrative response at the end that may not so easily fit into a yes/no answer (“It’s in the middle of my chest, right here, and it started after I really pushed myself swimming last night”). Pretend that you are being asked “how” or “why” instead of “yes/no,” and add your own response. Look to make sure your doctor registers this answer—does he ask you more questions to follow-up on what you said, for example? Does he make eye contact with you while you describe your symptoms? Does he change the subject back to what he was asking before?

Tip #3: Ask your own questions. If you don’t understand why a particular question is relevant to your situation, ask about it (“Can you explain why you are asking about back pain, when my main issue is feeling more tired than usual?”). You may be surprised to find that the doctor herself isn’t sure and is only asking the question out of habit. On the other hand, you may find out that issues you wouldn’t have thought were related might actually be connected and, therefore, are very important to discuss. Your visit to your doctor is also a chance for you to learn more about your body and your health. If something doesn’t make sense, ask about it right away.

Tip #4: Interrupt when interrupted. If your doctor cuts you off when you try to explain your full answer, feel free to interrupt. Pretend you’re having a conversation, even when it feels like you’re being interrogated. For example, if you’re asked “When did your headache start?” rather than responding “At 10am,” go ahead and tell your story of how the pain started. “I woke up this morning and I was fine, then I started walking to work and the pain came on suddenly like a lightning bolt striking me.” This is not a new tactic; lawyers will often coach clients in advance to answer yes/no questions with a narrative so that answers can’t be taken out of context. Interrupting is a way to ensure that your entire answer is heard, not just the part that the doctor thinks he wants to hear.

Tip #5: Focus on your concerns. Always tell your doctor what it is that you are most concerned about. Perhaps a friend had similar symptoms, and was diagnosed with cancer—you want to know if you have cancer. Perhaps your doctor wants to talk about your abdominal pain, but you are most worried about your weight gain. Make sure your doctor knows what it is you’re most worried about. If you get the sense that your concerns are being brushed over, interject, “Excuse me, doctor, I have tried to answer all your questions, but I am still not certain my concerns have been addressed. Can you please help me understand why it is that I have been feeling fatigued and short of breath for the last two weeks?” You can take charge of the conversation at that point. It’s your body and your duty to advocate for yourself, especially if you don’t feel like your story has been understood and your concerns have been addressed.

Tip #6: Make sure you are courteous and respectful to your doctor. Your doctor is a professional, and is probably trying her best to help you. Your story has to be heard and your concerns addressed, but make sure you present your points in a respectful manner. You can say to your doctor, “I know we are on the same page and just want to make sure I get the right diagnosis. You are the expert when it comes to medicine, and I’m the expert when it comes to my body, so let’s work together to figure this out.” This type of mutual respect will ensure that a solid doctor-patient relationship is present, and is critical to the partnership you need to establish. 

You may be dissatisfied and frustrated by your medical care, but you can take control of it and transform your healthcare today. I discuss more techniques on how to do this in my book, When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests. Try these tips on your next doctor’s visit and build your partnership for better care.

Dr. Leana Wen is an emergency physician and author of "When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnosis and Unnecessary Tests." She was a Rhodes Scholar, and has trained at Washington University, the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham & Women's and Massachusetts General Hospitals.
You can find out more about Dr. Wen and check out her book at WhenDoctorsDontListen.com. Follow @DrLeanaWen and visit www.drleanawen.com.

Doctor and Patient Talking image from Shutterstock

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.