How to Talk to Your Doctor
There's often a big gap between what a patient says to a doctor and what the doctor actually hears. Case in point: A new study from Italy found that dermatologists routinely underestimate the amount of stress, anxiety and depression that skin problems cause. The same study found that dentists often overestimate the impact of dental problems on patients' lives, assuming patients are more miserable than they really are.
These findings aren't a fluke, says Dr. Davis Liu, a board-certified family physician practicing in Sacramento. "Health care professionals often focus on the problem at hand and not the impact a particular condition has on an individual," he says. "They might not ask because they aren't being mindful, or because they're afraid that if they do ask, they'll open a big can of worms and won't have enough time to deal with it."
As a result, the onus is on you, the patient, to clearly convey your symptoms to your doctors and dentist. Here's how:
Reporting that you have pain and discomfort is not nearly as helpful as telling your dentist that you have pain on the left side of your jaw that feels like electric shocks, says Liu, who is also the author of Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely: Making Intelligent Choices in America's Healthcare System. Also include a chronological timeline, including when the symptoms began, whether they're constant or intermittent, what (if anything) makes them better or worse, and how they've changed over time. These details can hold important clues to what may be going on.
Explain the full effect of your symptoms.
It's helpful for your doctor or dentist to know how a condition is affecting your mood, energy and ability to function. So be sure to mention that your toothache is so bad that you can't chew well or sleep. Also mention how the condition impacts your family, or if it's affecting your ability to work or care for your kids.
Share your fears.
Since your state of mind could aggravate your symptoms, you should 'fess up if you're worried about something: Tell your provider that, since your symptoms have gotten worse, you're afraid this could be a sign of cancer, for example, or that it will somehow disable you. "It's better to say something than to assume your provider can read your mind," says Liu. Your provider may be able to allay your fears while getting to the bottom of what's really going on.
Ultimately, in your relationships with doctors and dentists, it's wise to err on the side of saying more -- not less -- about what's ailing you and how it's affecting you. "A health care provider who's a skilled communicator will filter out the unnecessary information and focus on what's most important," says Liu. "So don't self-censor or leave out information; just try to be as objective as possible." That way, you'll improve your chances of getting a prompt diagnosis -- and relief.
Stacey Colino is a freelance writer specializing in health and psychological issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post health section and in such national magazines as Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day and Prevention.
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