Two Doctors Explain How to Be a Better, Smarter Patient

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In addition to expensive and scary, being a patient is often downright confusing: Your body’s misbehaving in ways you don’t really comprehend, and all the explanations for what’s going on are couched in medical jargon that you may or may not be familiar with. And as oncologists Mikkael Sekeres and Timothy Gilligan, both of the Cleveland Clinic, recently wrote in the New York Times, the problem isn’t just that doctors often aren’t great at communicating clearly with patients — it’s also that they fail to check if the patient understands before moving on.

“In schools, teachers determine what students know through tests and homework. The standard is not whether the teacher has explained how to add, but instead whether the student can add,” they wrote, continuing:

If we were truly invested in whether you were informed, we’d give you a quiz, or at least ask you to repeat back to us what you heard so we could assess its accuracy. Instead, our script frequently looks more like this:

Us: Blah blah blah.
You, as the patient, nod, and look like you’re paying close attention.
Us: Did you understand everything we said?
You: Yes.
Us: Any questions?
You: No.

It makes sense why you might not want to jump in with a ton of questions. To truly understand what a doctor is saying as well as they understand it — well, that’s what medical school is for. But there’s a wide gulf between total mastery and the fuzzy sort-of grasp Sekeres and Gilligan described. And the way to move away from the latter and towards the former, they explained, is pretty simple: Be an active listener, rather than a passive one.

What does that mean in practice? Really, just doing anything more than hearing and nodding. If you want a written record of the conversation to refer back to, take notes. If you want to know about alternatives beyond what’s being proposed, ask what they are, or get your hands on some pamphlets. Request to talk to a patient who’s had the same condition or treatment that you’re currently dealing with to get another perspective. And maybe most important, repeat what the doctor just said in your own words, so that it becomes immediately clear if you’ve missed or misunderstood anything. The doctor may be the one treating your body, but you’re the one that has to live in it.


Two Doctors Explain How to Be a Better, Smarter Patient