Advocating for your health: How to build a stronger relationship with your doctor

by Kaiser Permanente |
A smiling couple talks with their doctor

You live in your body every day, so you know it best. But what happens when you feel like something’s off and your doctor doesn’t understand, or seem concerned? What if they recommend a treatment plan you’re not comfortable with? It’s OK to feel a little nervous about talking openly with your doctor. But they’re there to answer your concerns.

Health care professionals are trained in culturally responsive care. So they know the importance of addressing your needs and preferences. And they know that gaps in communication can lead to gaps in care. But health care professionals are also human and can struggle to convey or respond to certain topics.

Your doctor’s there to support you, so let them know if you’re concerned about something. Here are a few things you can do to be your own best health advocate.

Find a doctor who meets your needs and preferences

Start by reviewing doctor profiles online. Try sorting by location, languages spoken, and area of expertise. Looking for a doctor who specializes in kidney care? Need guidance on a plant-based diet? Many doctor profiles offer some insight into their interests and specialties. You may also be able to ask a friend or family member to recommend a doctor they trust. If you need extra help, you can also call your health plan’s member services team.

Bring notes and questions to your visit

Don’t attempt to diagnose yourself, but do spend some time looking up your symptoms before your visit. Some sources are more helpful than others, so stick to well-known medical organizations. Try to get familiar with the topics you’d like to discuss and create a list of questions. If you can describe your symptoms or questions in a language your doctor doesn’t speak, write them down. Qualified Interpretation services (including sign language) are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at no charge to you. Make sure to request interpreter services, other auxiliary aids or services, and modifications when you make your appointment and consider confirming their availability with your provider’s office.

At the end of your appointment, your doctor or care team should provide a summary of the visit and any next steps. You can request materials translated into your language, or in alternative formats, including standard or large print, braille, accessible pdf, or audio file. Review your treatment plan together and save any information for future reference. Many doctors also include this information and other notes in an electronic health record for you or your care team to access online later. Notes may provide more insight into why they asked you certain questions, what they’re looking to rule out, and why they’ve chosen your treatment plan.

If you aren’t clear on your doctor’s directions for a follow-up plan, ask them for more information. And if you have other questions or concerns later, call or send your doctor a message between visits.

Make your concern a priority

Kerry Litman, MD, physician lead for Person and Family Centered Care at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, emphasizes that you’re the one with the most at stake. For example, if you tell your doctor that you have a lump in your breast, and they don’t seem as concerned as you are, request a second opinion. It’s better to play it safe.

“As doctors, it is our job to reassure you that you are safe,” he says. “You can get your doctor’s attention with ‘CUS’ reframing: ‘I’m concerned,’ ‘I’m uncomfortable with your diagnosis,’ and ‘My top priority is my safety.’”

Open and honest conversation is the key to a good relationship with your doctor. If you feel like you’re not being heard, you can reach out to another doctor. Or request that a family member or patient advocate join you in the exam room.

Trust the process — but ask for clarification

What if you go to the doctor about one issue and they start asking you about something else? Sometimes questions that seem unrelated are part of the process.

Process of elimination is an important part of diagnosis, explains La Shawna Williams, MD, physician director of care experience at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California.

“We care first that the patient is safe and doesn’t have a life-threatening condition,” she says. “Once we can rule out those immediate concerns, we look for the real source.”

Questions about your general health are normal, especially if you’re seeing your regular personal doctor. This may include questions seemingly unrelated to your current symptoms.

“Your doctor cares about your overall wellness,” adds Dr. Williams. “There will be standard questions as part of every visit to make sure we see the patient in totality.”

If you’re ever confused or uncomfortable with a line of questioning, though, let your doctor know. Dr. Williams suggests saying something like, “I don’t understand where you’re going with this. Help me understand.”

Get involved

How can you support the quality of care other patients receive? Many medical facilities recruit for patient advisory councils. “We’re designing care incorrectly if there’s no patient involvement,” says Dr. Williams. “And this is a way to get involved.”

Volunteering your time is a chance to share your perspective as a patient and help others. If you’re interested in joining, reach out to your local facility.