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How To Communicate With Your Parent’s Doctor

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Doctor-patient communication relies on both parties speaking clearly, listening closely, and understanding the words and concepts of the discussion. Communicating with doctors can be tricky in the best of circumstances, with unfamiliar terms, and rushed appointments.

how to effectively talk to your parent's doctors

For older adults, it can be even harder. By learning how to better communicate with your parents’ doctor, you can help your parent be as healthy as possible.

Why family caregivers need to participate in your parent’s healthcare.

Your parents need your help. Managing a serious medical condition is tough for anyone, but it’s particularly hard for seniors, since our ability to remember medical information and manage complex care declines as we age.

In fact, in one study, researchers concluded that almost 40% of seniors (65+) could not manage the complexities of navigating the healthcare system.

Specifically, the study found:

  • It was “sometimes” or “often” hard for these patients and their families to manage healthcare activities and medical appointments.
  • Older patients sometimes delayed, or even skipped, recommended healthcare activities.
  • Dealing with everything involved in managing healthcare was too much for many.

Why Is Patient-Doctor Communication So Important?

Good communication improves outcomes.

Researchers found that patients who effectively communicate with their doctors make more appropriate medical decisions and have better health outcomes.

Speaking up improves patient safety.

Poor patient-doctor communication increases the risk of medical errors. In fact, experts state that speaking up is a critical behavior for patient safety.

Why Is It Hard For Seniors To Communicate Effectively With Their Doctors?

Many seniors can’t fully understand medical information.

Health literacy, the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information, declines as we age. In fact, The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, reports that only 3% of people 65+ have proficient health literacy skills.

Patients forget or misremember medical information.

It can be hard for older people to successfully recall medical information. For instance, one study on the ability to understand medication instructions found that seniors recalled fewer instructions than younger adults – although both groups overestimated their ability to recall the instructions.

That being said, everyone, regardless of age, struggles to correctly remember medical information they hear during doctor’s visits. Research shows that:

  • 40%-80% of medical information is forgotten immediately.
  • The more you hear, the lower the proportion remembered.
  • Almost 1/2 of what you do remember is remembered incorrectly.

This misinformation can greatly impact the health issues your parent is dealing with.

Doctors don’t always provide information that is easy to understand.

Unfortunately, doctors don’t always provide patients with easy-to-understand medical information.

Doctors don’t always make sure patients understand the information discussed.

Since so many patients struggle to understand medical information, doctors should, but don’t always, confirm patients’ understanding by asking them to repeat back key information.

Doctors frequently interrupt patients, impeding good communication.

To determine a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment options, doctors must listen carefully to their patients. Even though patients’ stories provide valuable information, many medical professionals find it hard to listen intently.

In fact, researchers found that primary care doctors interrupt patients just 12 seconds into their first statements describing their symptoms and issues.

For more information, read Doctors Interrupting Patients Can Impact Our Health.

Electronic Health Records don’t help patient-doctor communication.

Electronic Health Records (EHRs) require doctors to pay attention to their computer screens, which can reduce the quality of conversations.

Research shows that doctors feel that EHRS negatively impact their connections with their patients. 

Additionally, hospital-based doctors worry that EHRs diminish time spent with patients, and office-based doctors report that EHRs reduce the quality of their patient interactions.

For more information on EHRs, read 6 Dangers of Electronic Health Records.

Doctors and patients might not be on the same page. 

Sometimes patients and doctors are not in sync with what is being discussed.

One study found that patients and doctors frequently differed on their view of the cause, meaning, treatment and control of their medical conditions. In other words, the doctor and patient hear the same information but interpret it differently.

This can of course impact the health care decisions that are being made.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The researchers found when patients (or their adult children) asked frequent questions, expressed concerns, and stated their own opinions, it was easier for doctors to understand their patients’ views.

Can I speak to my parent’s doctor?

Yes! You can, and you should, speak to your parents’ physician.

Firstly, your conversations with your parent’s doctors can provide insight for them on your parent’s health, the impact on his/her day-to-day life, and any concerns you have.

Importantly, these conversations can help you make sure that both you and your parent understand his/her diagnosis, treatment options, medications, at-home care, follow-up instructions, and other health related issues.

As helpful as these conversations can be, the best way to avoid complications and miscommunications is for your family to choose one person to communicate with your parent’s doctors.

Getting The Authorization To Speak To Your Parent’s Doctor

For starters, you can ask your parent to share his/her login for each doctor’s portal so you can see notes from appointments, test results, medications, etc.

However, for conversations with your parent’s doctors, some paperwork is required. Technically, your parent must complete a HIPAA form giving each doctor (and hospital) permission to speak with you about his/her care and condition.

Keep in mind that healthcare providers and health plans are by law not required to share information with a person’s family or friends unless they are the patient’s personal representatives.

National Institute On Aging

HIPAA stands for The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It’s basically a consent form allow your parent’s healthcare provider to share your parent’s medical information with you.

That being said, HIPAA laws allow doctors some discretion about sharing health information with family members and others. However, to be safe, it’s wise to have your parent complete the needed HIPAA forms. You can find the forms online or ask at your doctor.

Importantly, you should consider getting an advanced directive – a living will and/or a medical power of attorney. These documents will allow you to make medical decision on your parent’s behalf if he/she is unable to do so.

Note: Some states call a medical power of attorney a health care power of attorney.

How To Talk To Your Parent’s Doctors

As Roberta Carson, of Zaggo, Inc. states, “Communicating effectively with your parent’s doctors is a great way to help your parent stay as healthy as possible”.

These following tips can help you to better communicate with your parent’s doctors.

  1. Whenever possible, attend appointments with your aging parent, providing a second set of ears, asking questions, providing support, and helping with decision-making.
  2. If you cannot attend in person, try to attend via a phone call. Your parent can call you at the beginning of the appointment, allowing you to fully participate. Note: it’s a good idea to let the doctor know about these plans.
  3. Know that you can write or email your concerns to the doctor as well. Anything written is entered into your parent’s medical record.
  4. Make sure that your parent’s doctor has all of your contact information on file.
  5. Prepare for appointments. Bring a list of questions and write down your parent’s “story” to describe anything pertinent to his/her health. For instance, if your parent feels sick after eating, or gets dizzy in the heat, write it down and share it with the doctor.
  6. Take careful, detailed notes during (not after) every appointment. Share the information in these notes will every care provider. A toolkit like the one from ZaggoCare can go a long way in helping you to do this and keep your own medical history on hand.
  7. Record each medical appointment with a phone or recording device. You, your parent, and others can listen to the conversation later which will help everyone remember the details discussed. But ask the doctor for permission before recording.
  8. Make sure your doctor listens to your parent’s story and health concerns. If the doctor interrupts you (or your parent), continue where you left off – don’t get sidetracked. And don’t leave out details because you are tired of repeatedly telling the same story.
  9. Ask as many questions as you need to make sure you and your parent understand the diagnosis, treatment options and care instructions. If you don’t understand the doctor, ask him/her to repeat the information.
  10. Whenever possible, get printed information from the doctor. Especially about any treatment plan.
  11. In order to make sure you (and your senior parent) understood your doctor correctly, repeat back what you heard.
  12. Importantly, if something doesn’t seem right, don’t be afraid to speak up!
  13. Stay organized. In addition to taking notes, keep all health-related documents, such as test results, organized and accessible. Share these documents with each medical provider on your parent’s team. Don’t assume your parent’s providers communicate with each other! And don’t forget to bring them to the hospital for admission or an emergency room visit.
  14. If your parent is in the hospital, participate in hospital daily rounds when your medical team discusses your parent’s care and condition. For more information, read The Benefits of Participating in Hospital Rounds.

Tips for conversations about medications:

  1. Ask the doctor why, how, and when your parent should take each new medication. Write this information down.
  2. Ask each doctor if any particular medications, or a combination of medications, could increase the risk of falling. If so, ask about safer options.
  3. Ask each doctor if all the prescription and over-the-counter medications taken by your parent are medically necessary.
  4. Tell the doctor if your parent cannot afford his/her medications. The doctor may have suggestions for similar medications, generics, or discounts.
  5. Keep an updated list of your parent’s medications (including over-the-counter) with you and give one to your parent one to carry at all times. Be sure to include dosage information.

A few final thoughts:

Effective communication with doctors can help your parent get the best medical care possible. If any of the doctors are not willing to have meaningful conversations and include you and your parent as part of the medical team, it might be time for a new doctor.

If you can’t attend appointments in person or by phone, consider hiring a geriatric care manager (GCM) to attend on your behalf. A GCM, usually a licensed nurse or social worker who specializes in geriatrics, can participate in an appointment as you would, and then share the details with you.

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