THE BLOG
01/15/2013 08:16 am ET | Updated Mar 16, 2013

5 Steps to Building a Great Partnership With Your Doctor

The last time you went to your doctor, did you feel like he listened to you? Did he figure out what's going on and help you feel better? Or did you feel ignored, and left with more questions than answers?

The New Year is the time to make changes in our health. If you feel dissatisfied or frustrated by your care, now is the time to develop a relationship with your doctor to get the care that you need. You may not always have the opportunity to pick the ideal doctor for you, but you can take five key steps to building a great partnership with your doctor:

1. Express your intentions to your doctor. Doctors aren't mind readers, and are probably used to patients being passive participants in their healthcare. No matter if this is a new doctor that you're meeting for the first time in the E.R., or one that you've had a relationship with for a while, state clearly at the beginning of your visit to her that you want to be involved as a partner in your own decision-making process. Ask to share in her thought process. Inquire about what it is she thinks you have, and respectfully ask for your diagnosis. Say that you want to be involved in figuring out what you have and what to do.

2. Help your doctor help you. Studies show that most diagnoses can be made by understanding the story -- the history of your illness. Yet, one of the most frequent complaints patients have is that their doctors don't listen to them. No doubt, there are limitations and pressures on the doctor's time, but neglecting to listen to you will result in misdiagnoses. You can help make sure your doctor listens to you by telling a good story. Begin at the beginning and proceed chronologically. Provide context, such as how it affected your life. Write down key details so you don't forget, and rehearse it to your friends.

3. Ask about every test that is ordered. Every test should be done for a specific reason. Doing a "screening test" without a purpose is like fingerprinting the entire city to search for a suspect -- it's ineffective and likely to end up with confusing results. Not to mention that every test, even the basic blood draw, has potential harms. Many times, doctors will order tests out of reflex, but you should ask what labs, x-rays, CTs, MRIs, etc, are looking for. How is the test going to change your management? Is it necessary? What are the possible harms? What are the alternatives?

4. Use the diagnosis to guide decision-making. Before you leave the doctor, you should always have a diagnosis -- or at least several very likely diagnoses. The treatment should be targeted to the diagnosis; otherwise, what is it being done for? Ask about what comes next. Perhaps there are two or three possible diagnoses; what is going to be done to try to narrow this down? What's the natural course of the illness; what should you expect and what can you do to start feeling better? Prepare and ask questions before you leave the doctor.

5. Practice every single time you go to your doctor. When you're really sick, you can't begin to think about how to figure out a partnership with your doctor. If you're having a pounding headache, or crushing chest pain, the last thing you want to do is to think about how to ask for your diagnosis. Or if it's your elderly parent or your child, you feel their pain and anguish -- you can't begin to think about a new way of being the patient. That's why the key is to practice now, in every single medical encounter, even a visit to urgent care for a sore throat or an annual check-up. In fact, it's during these low-stress situations that you can really build your partnership with your doctor. Taking control of your health and making sure your doctor is your partner is like learning CPR; you can't wait until you really need it to learn how to do it; you have to practice it now for when you really need the skills.

You may be dissatisfied and frustrated by the way your medical care is today, but there is a way to make it better. You hold the key to transforming your health, beginning with establishing a solid partnership with your doctor. I discuss more tips in my new book, When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests. Try it on your next doctor's visit, and build your partnership for better care.

For more by Leana Wen, M.D., click here.

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