Much like getting your teeth cleaned, going to the doctor isn’t most people’s favorite activity. It is part of staying healthy, however, so making the most of any visit with your health care team is time well spent.
“I would love unlimited time to see each patient but unfortunately our schedules are not set up that way, so it is important to make the most of the time we do have,” said Dr. Meena Rao, an electrophysiologist and medical director of the Coastal Atrial Fibrillation Clinic at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - Wilmington.
“I get a summary, a short blurb about why a patient is there to see me, but it’s not always a complete picture,” Rhee said. “I encourage people to be vocal because that’s how we as physicians can really make a difference.”
With a combined 30 years of experience, Drs. Rao and Rhee shared five ways patients can build rapport with their doctor – and guidance for those who may be frustrated with theirs.
1. Be open
The key to any doctor-patient relationship, both physicians agree, is honest and open communication. “And that goes both ways,” Rhee said.
Their advice: Find a provider you are comfortable with.
“It’s so important to bring up anything that’s bothering you, no matter how embarrassing or weird you might feel about it,” Rao said. “As physicians, we need to take everything into account to find the best treatment plan. So, pick someone you can be open with. Or bring a support person with you, whatever you can do to create an environment that you are comfortable with.”
2. Understand the 'why'
Find a health care provider who listens and understands you.
As a highly specialized physician who treats abnormal heart rhythms, Rao said it’s not uncommon for people to not know why they were referred to her. The ambiguity makes it harder for the patient to digest what they’re talking about.
“Ask the referring physician why you need to see (the specialist). Learn what that provider specializes in. And I always tell people, ‘Write down your questions or anything you want to talk about.’ It really helps focus our discussion.”
3. Set goals (and communicate them)
Rhee agreed that setting clear expectations about what you’d like to accomplish helps make the appointment more successful.
Her advice: Be vocal about what those goals are.
“Let’s say the patient summary says they’re seeing you for long-term pelvic pain,” Rhee said. “Obviously, they want treated for that pain, but one of their goals might also be to understand what’s causing it. We don’t want people to leave feeling disappointed or without information. So, I encourage patients to speak up.”
4. Ask questions
Don’t be afraid to take notes or ask questions. “That’s what we’re here for,” Rhee said. “Not only to listen but to educate.”
After a particularly long visit, or when a complicated medical topic is discussed, Rhee uses the “teach-back method,” something she learned in medical school, as a way of involving patients in their care plan.
“Before the patient leaves, I ask them to verbally explain things back to me. It’s not meant to be a quiz; it just helps me know that we’re on the same page and operating as a team,” she said.
Keep in mind that you might learn differently from another patient, and that’s OK. Some people can absorb everything they hear, others need to read it and, for many people, it’s a combination.
“Once they reiterate everything back to me, I print out some materials and they can go home and read it. That way, if there are any other questions, the patient can leave a message in MyChart or call the clinic and ask,” Rhee said.
Being clear about next steps is important, she added, so don’t hesitate to ask your provider to repeat themselves or to sum up the visit.
5. Be an advocate (or bring one with you)
Listening to the patient is incredibly important, “especially when someone is afraid or anxious. You have to hear them before you can help them,” Rao said.
If you’ve ever felt dismissed or unheard at a medical visit, she reminds people that it is OK to advocate for themselves.
“Let’s say, for example, that a woman comes in with symptoms she believes are due to a heart attack. If the doctor says, ‘I don’t think you’re having a heart attack.’ That doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. Be honest about your confusion. Ask questions to understand how or why they arrived at their decision, because it could be a miscommunication,” Rao said.
And if you’re someone who has a hard time advocating for yourself, both physicians said it’s OK to bring someone with you.
(Note: Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 have prevented this in the past, but Novant Health does everything in its power to ensure that people can bring a health care champion to their appointment.)
Trust your gut
In the end, both physicians agree: Trusting your gut is just as important as the trust you should have in your care team.
“There has to be trust on both sides, from the patient and the provider, to have a successful relationship,” Rao said.
If something feels “off,” getting a second opinion or asking for a referral is perfectly acceptable, Rhee said.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a second opinion if you have an uneasy feeling,” Rhee said. “In fact, sometimes I encourage it, because again, both the patient and the doctor need to be 100% certain in whatever direction they decide to take. So, whatever people can do to get that confidence is what I would recommend.”
Rhee said she’s happy to make a referral to another ob-gyn at her clinic, or another location that might be more convenient.
“After all, we as physicians go into medicine because we want to help people. It doesn’t matter who is doing that helping,” she said.