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Communicate with Your Healthcare Professionals

December 2015 Vol 1 No 6
Elizabeth Franklin, MSW, ACSW
Executive Director, Cancer Policy Institute
Cancer Support Community

Once you have found a healthcare team you trust, it is important to establish a relationship with them that is open, honest, and direct. Your healthcare providers, particularly your oncology care team, are partners with you in your cancer care experience. Establish this relationship early by communicating to your healthcare team that you want to be an engaged patient, and you want to understand your health and your care plan. You are a healthcare consumer, and you deserve as much information as you need to be able to make the best decisions about your care.

Prepare Questions for Your Doctor

Before you go to your appointment, prepare a list of questions you want to ask your doctor. Regardless of your personal background, education level, or experience with the medical system, communicating with your doctor can be overwhelming and even intimidating. Healthcare settings are fast-paced and can be chaotic. It is easy to walk into an office thinking you will remember all of your concerns when you talk with your doctor, but don’t rely on your memory! It is easy to forget some key things you wanted to discuss.

Between now and your next visit, keep a list of the questions and concerns you have. When your doctor enters the room, begin the conversation by telling him or her that you have a list of concerns that you’d like to discuss.

Prioritize them in case you don’t have time to ask them all. If all your questions are not answered, ask the doctor who else you should ask to get the rest of your questions answered.

List Any Medications You’re Taking

Let your doctor know about all your current medications, including supplements or alternative products or services you are using. Cancer is treated with medications that you’ve probably never taken before. Bring a list of all your medications to your appointments, so that your doctor can best manage your care. Include the name of the medicine (and if it is generic or a brand name), the dosage, why you are taking it, and how long you’ve been taking it.

Be sure to include all medicines, prescription drugs, over-the-counter products, vitamins, and supplements. Your healthcare team can help you avoid any dangerous drug interactions and side effects by having this information in your medical record.

Tell your doctor of any problems you are having, including physical symptoms, emotional concerns, or distress. Healthcare providers are not mind readers. Although they may pick up on some cues, such as body language or temperament, they cannot guess how you are feeling if you don’t tell them. If you are in pain or distress, if you are emotionally tired or sad, or if you have any new symptoms, tell your care team. They must understand everything about your health–physically, mentally, and emotionally–to be able to provide you the best treatment plan and support services.

Speak Up

Ask questions when you don’t understand something about your health, your treatment plan, or any risks you may have associated with your cancer and treatment. Healthcare is complex, and cancer care involves new words, procedures, and systems that won’t be familiar until you experience them. Your cancer care providers want you to understand your health risks and treatment plan. They expect you to ask questions.

If you do not speak up, your doctor and your care team will probably assume you understand or agree with everything they have told you.

Be Your Own Advocate

If you do not feel comfortable communicating with your care team, seek a new one! Your relationships with your doctor and support team are some of the most important relationships you will have in your life. Communicate what is important to you, and your goals for your care.

Explain your concerns and fears. Ask for what you need. You are your own best advocate! Your doctor’s ability to help you depends on you communicating what you expect, what you are experiencing, and the questions you have each step of the way.

For daily information on being an engaged patient, follow us on Twitter @PreparedPatient.

Patient Resources

Center for Advancing Health (Engagement)

National Cancer Institute (Communication)

National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship Teamwork Booklet

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