Tips for Talking To Your Doctor


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Did you know that there’s a term for talking to your doctor and understanding your treatment and care? It’s called “health literacy.” It’s important for patients to understand what your doctor is telling you, so that you can make informed and educated decisions about your medical condition and treatment. To take it a step farther, not only is health literacy about understanding the information you are given, but it is also about being able to take the steps you need to take. Read on for helpful tips for talking to your doctor.

The CDC describes “personal health literacy” as: “The degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” 

Questions to Ask When You Talk to a Doctor

Frequently patients feel like you should know more than you do, and you may wonder how to talk to a doctor – you may even be embarrassed to ask them questions. It is better to ask your doctor questions than move forward without understanding your treatment and care. If you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, tips for talking to your doctor may include asking the following questions: 

  1. What kind of cancer do I have? Colon or rectal?
  2. What stage is it? (What does stage mean?)
  3. What are my treatment options?
  4. How long will I need to be treated?
  5. What is the end result of the treatment strategy? (Can I be cured? Will I need additional treatments for the rest of my life?)
  6. Do I have choices in my treatment or can I choose the order of my treatments?
  7. How long might treatment last from start to finish?
  8. What are side effects I may encounter?
  9. Do you have someone who can help me through this process, like a nurse navigator?
  10. Do you have someone who can help me with mental health, like a social worker?

When You Speak to the Doctor About Colorectal Cancer Treatment

A colorectal cancer diagnosis is a lot to process. When you speak to the doctor to learn more about specific colorectal cancer treatment, some questions you might ask are: 

  • If I need chemotherapy, how many chemotherapy treatments are necessary?
    • How often?
    • How frequently?
  • If I need radiation, how many radiation treatments are necessary?
    • How often?
    • How frequently?
  • Will I need surgery?
    • What will the surgery do for me?
      • Do I have other options?
      • How long will my recovery time be?
  • What is immunotherapy?
  • What medications will I be taking during my treatment?
    • Is there any time I should call you if I have strange side effects or feelings?

Please keep in mind that doctors treat each patient as an individual. If you know someone who was diagnosed with the same colorectal cancer and stage that you were, but their treatment is different, it doesn’t mean either treatment is “better,” “right,” or “wrong.”  When you speak to the doctor, remember that it’s OK to ask questions to help you understand specific treatment recommendations, especially if you need more detail or information.

If you have any questions, please feel free to talk to the doctor or someone on your healthcare team, such as a nurse or navigator. They are so focused on saving your life, that sometimes they may assume that you know or understand more than you do.

Why Is It Important to Talk to the Doctor?

We know that knowledge is power for patients and caregivers. When patients understand enough and become active partners in their treatment, it enhances their overall outcome; improves their understanding of their treatment; and their ability to follow through with their doctor’s recommendations. All of this helps to reduce anxiety for patients and their families because they are informed and know what to expect and questions to ask. For example, if you are being prescribed a medication, here are some tips for questions to ask when talking to your doctor:

  • Why am I taking it?
  • How should I take it?
  • For how long should I take it?
  • What is the goal or intended outcome of taking it?
  • What should I do if I experience side effects?
  • How will I know if the medication is helping or working?

Talking to the Doctor When You Don’t Understand?

Don’t be shy! Ask questions if you don’t understand something when talking to the doctor. Don’t be afraid to tell them you don’t understand what they explained. Ask if there is a different way to explain it to you so that you do understand. You didn't earn a medical degree in cancer when you were diagnosed. There is a lot of information coming at you. When talking to the doctor, it’s very important to slow down the conversation, so that you can take notes and process what they are telling you.

Fight CRC Resources

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Signs, Tips, and Suggestions for Doctors for Talking with Patients and Caregivers

Health literacy refers to an individual’s capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

It is critical for patients and caregivers to have access to medical information and resources. And beyond access, these resources need to be easy to understand. Finally, it’s not enough to just understand the resources or information, patients  need to apply this knowledge and use it in their own lives. Signs for doctors that their patients don’t understand the importance of their treatment, medications, or information they’re providing include:

  • Frequently missed appointments.
  • Incomplete registration forms.
  • Non-compliance with medication.
  • Unable to name medications, explain purpose or dosing.
  • Identifies pills by looking at them, not reading the label.
  • Unable to give coherent, sequential history.
  • Ask fewer questions.
  • Lack of follow-through on tests or referrals.

If you or your office staff notice any of these signs, it may be helpful to invest additional time with these patients to develop their health literacy.

Practice Tips for Doctors, Nurses, and Office Staff

The following tips can help doctors, nurses, or staff help patients better understand their treatment and care:

  • Use plain language (avoid medical jargon).  
  • Be simple and to the point (explain what needs to be done for them and why).
  • Speak in a conversational tone (don’t be condescending or speak at the patient).
  • Ask your patient if they can explain back to you what you’ve told them.
  • Use visual ads. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

When your patient understands the information you’ve provided, they are well-informed to engage in meaningful conversation and feel like a partner in their care, rather than feeling brushed off or dismissed.