09/27/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

Good Talks With the Doctor

A severe sore throat sent me to see my Iowa doctor and taught me a great truth. The doctor came into the room and sat down. He looked at me in a listening way. "How are you?" The doctor seemed to be more interested in the "whole me" than in the symptoms that brought me to the office that day. As he listened deeply, my sore throat seemed to go away.

In the healing ministries of Elijah and Jesus, there is a similar dynamic. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Elijah and Jesus were more into listening and seeing than into talking and being busy. Having a good talk with your doctor, the doctor listening, the patient asking important questions, is a central piece of real health care reform.

During the years I served a church in Iowa, I "trained" parishioners to talk with their doctors. It started when people with cancer were upset that their oncologist would not take the time to sit down and talk with them. On chemotherapy visits, one particular oncologist would come to the waiting room door, say a perfunctory hello and move on.

These cancer patients were coached between appointments to write down every single question and concern they had. They carried these questions to the appointment. When the doctor would appear at the door, the patient was coached to say to the doctor, "Doc, please come in here and sit down. I have several questions to talk with you about."

Sure enough, the doctor would come in and sit down and work through the questions. Through these good talks with the doctor, the patients became more engaged in their own health strategies and more a partner in the health care process.

It is true that doctors in the current system only have about 10 to 15 minutes allotted per patient. But this is no excuse for the doctor and the medical staff not to have good listening conversations with patients. You and I need to do our part to initiate the conversation. We need to speak up, to take charge of our health.

Our getting involved in the conversation with the medical community gets at what the doctor Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he wrote: "Every patient carries his [or her] own doctor inside." And in the Christian tradition when Jesus says "your faith has made you well," isn't he affirming the role of the patient in his or her own wellness?

Doctors and their medical teams pursuing listening conversations is a key step in leading patients to better care and healthier lives. These conversations will require new training for the medical community. This engagement by all the players creates communication, intentionality and involvement that increase the chances of improving individual health. In turn, this dynamic engagement often leads to fewer procedures and drugs, reducing health care costs.

Now when I see my doctors, I always carry my list of questions, not wanting to forget my questions in the short time allowed. My doctors who know me often begin by saying "let me hear your questions.'' Through my questions and these conversations, I begin to understand more, and I feel more understood. And health care reform moves forward.