February 11, 2016

Practical Tips For Better Communication With Your Doctor

By The Diane Rehm Show Staff

Our show on Tuesday, Feb. 9 highlighted technology’s potential to improve how you communicate with your doctor — but it can be difficult to know how to approach your doctor or how to navigate the issues that come with this sort of communication, such as knowing when it is appropriate to email and protecting your privacy. One of our panelists, Dr. Kavita Patel, has some tips to better connect with your doctor, but as she says, “the best advice is to find a health professional who connects with YOU!”

Know your communication options: The default is always the phone — every physician’s office is prepared for patients to call, but there are many times when those messages feel like they go into a black hole. At your next visit, ask your doctor directly if they are comfortable with email or another mechanism of communication such as texting. Many doctors now communicate with a patient through a patient portal, which is usually part of the doctor’s electronic health record keeping system (think of it as a digital version of your paper medical records) and can allow for you to send direct messages or directly see lab and X-ray results. Finally, some doctors are using video technologies similar to Skype and FaceTime, but those are generally being used for “virtual visits” rather than asking questions or clarifying information.

If your physician gives you access to their personal email and/or cell phone, please remember two things:

  1. Most physicians see patients every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with very little time to deal with texts and email so try to limit use of this communication to problems that can be answered quickly or need a rapid decision (like whether or not you need to see the doctor or when you forgot your medication and need an emergency call to the pharmacy).
  2. Personal emails and phone numbers are not generally protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which establishes national standards for protecting patients’ personal health information; when you use emails or send information over a regular cell phone, keep in mind that you do so without the protection of the HIPAA standards. Nevertheless, many patients and doctors still find email and texting much more comfortable since we are all used to communicating through these modalities.

Get to know your medical team and communicate with all of them. As patients, much of our focus is on speaking with the doctor, but most doctors have a nurse or medical assistant that work closely with them. Ask for their direct phone number, email or times to call and keep their information handy. Many times, especially if your issue isn’t urgent, the clinical staff working with the doctor can get to the doctor quickly and discuss your issue.

Know the best times to talk to your doctor: Almost all doctors have some form of “after-hours” access through a call service or doctors in a practice rotating responsibility to take patient calls for urgent issues. But use the after-hours access only when you really have an urgent question, because often times your physician won’t be the one calling you back. As the physician who calls back may not have access to your medical record, they might not have your current medication list or allergies handy. Rather, the best times can be mid-mornings or closer to the end of the day since most office are busiest at the beginning of the day and right after lunch. Additionally, Mondays are usually busier than the other days.

Finally, use your own best judgment when trying to communicate. Think about when you are at home and hate having time with family disrupted; doctors are mothers, husbands, sisters and children themselves. But be your own advocate — your health is your own and yours alone!

Dr. Kavita Patel is a fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Health Policy; a primary care physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine; and the founder of Tuple Health, which works to improve communication with patients.


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