Let’s be honest, even at the best of times, discussions with healthcare professionals can be daunting, rushed, and a little confusing. Sadly, they can also sometimes be; abrupt, baffling, one-sided, and even upsetting – especially if you don’t understand what’s going on. Discussing your health and treatment is so important, and yet emotions and complexity of care can make it a very challenging experience.
Serious illness, palliative, and end-of-life care are complex areas of medicine that require a number of healthcare professionals to come together to support you. This puts you at the receiving end of a lot of information from hospitals, clinics, and clinicians.
As both a nurse and family caregiver, I have had a lot of training, taught others, learned many lessons, and seen both very good and poor health communication over the last 28 years. I feel I’m in a good position to share my advice and guide you on how to approach, discuss, and ask questions of your clinical care team in order to fully understand your health and treatment. I hope it helps you in your journey.
Here are my top ten tips to help improve your communication with your healthcare team:
- Understand their role: There are any number of different professionals you are likely to talk to during your care – get them to introduce themselves, explain their job and their role in the context of your care. Take a note of who they are, so you know whom to contact or ask questions from in the future.
- Ask for a slower pace: Clinicians are often busy (or their brain is working too quickly) and can sometimes rattle off a lot of information in a short space of time. If you miss anything, or don’t understand them clearly, ask them to talk more slowly and repeat themselves.
- Express hearing difficulties: If you have hearing difficulties let the person know, so they can speak up, or ask them for alternative ways of presenting information to you.
- Capture key information: Healthcare information can be very complex, and clinicians can over cram it into what they are saying. Take notes or ask to record the conversation, and get them to help you capture the key parts. You could bring someone with you for support, and they could take notes for you, in case you become overwhelmed.
- Clarify medical jargon: Doctors and other healthcare workers spend their career learning verbal shorthand to help them discuss patients at pace, and this can often spill into their chat with patients. Don’t be shy to ask them to explain a word, treatment type or medication. Medical staff know they are meant to explain things clearly, and so they should apologise and re-explain if you ask politely.
- Understand your medications: Medication names rarely have anything to do with their effect, and often very different drugs have annoyingly similar names. It is a professional (and legal) requirement for clinicians to explain the medication to you, including what it is for, how often you take it, the dose, as well as any likely side effects. If you don’t understand, please ask the clinician to explain again, and in more detail. This becomes very important as care progresses, as many medications have side effects that can mimic the disease, or cause difficulties.
- Make sense of blood tests: It’s likely that you will have many different blood tests over the course of your treatment and care, these may be discussed directly with you, or sent over to you. The importance (or not) of the tests should be discussed with you in detail, or communicated in a detailed letter, but if they are not, ask questions. It’s important to understand that many blood tests are done to exclude diseases, not diagnose them, and that the results will differ for everyone, based on their age, specific condition(s), treatment(s), and physical state. Therefore it’s important to discuss your blood test results with your healthcare team, rather than looking them up online or asking someone who is not directly related to your case.
- Know your treatment: This is one of the most important areas to get a clear understanding of and, thankfully, is the most likely thing to be explained well. However if you don’t understand any aspect of your treatment plan, please ask for further information or resources. You have to give informed consent for your care, so it’s important to keep asking questions until YOU feel informed enough.
- Create a medical folder: You will be given many bits of paper and letters related to your condition, care and treatment – start a physical folder for your paperwork early. Keep all your important documents here, and write appointments into your calendar as soon as you can. Keep records of your prescriptions and medication, you’ll be surprised how often you’ll be asked for these. It will be helpful to have a digital medical folder as well as the physical one, for easier access. You can take photos of all the documents, and store them here.
- Invite friends or family: You are well within your rights to have family support during appointments. If you have a medical savvy friend, it will be useful to bring them along to the appointment, or dial them in. If you ask for permission, the healthcare worker should allow you to call someone and put them on speaker.
Remember that doctors and nurses are required to provide you with detailed information about; your illness, treatments, medications, likely health outcomes and next steps. You shouldn’t feel awkward asking questions whenever you need to, taking notes, recording meetings, or asking for more information.
This is about your care journey. I hope I’ve helped you feel more confident, informed, and stress free, navigating your care journey.