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Speaking to Your Doctor

The key to health may be knowing when to listen, when to talk.

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WebMD: What do you do with the patient who has seen an alternative provider who's told him he doesn't need the established treatment you feel is necessary?

Groopman: I respond honestly. I'm open-minded. There are certain things like acupuncture which have been shown to be helpful. ... Alternative providers look in the patient's eyes and hold his hand and ask how stress is affecting this or that symptom. The doctors [working in managed care settings] don't ask about the patient's family and feelings and the social context in which the illness occurs. The patient feels he's a disease, a case. What we find is that people who flee traditional medicine do so because they feel they're not being listened to.

WebMD: Is there a "diagnostic test" to determine when your doctor is not listening?

Groopman: I go back to the story of my infant son. We had been driving cross-country on the July Fourth weekend and had already seen one doctor in Connecticut who dismissed my wife's concerns that Steve was seriously ill. Then when we got to the emergency room in Boston, the surgical resident seemed so tired and anxious to get some sleep. My wife [also a physician], who is a very organized thinker, gave a crisp and complete recitation of the last 24 hours. But when the resident started examining our son, he began asking, "When did you last nurse? When was his diaper changed?" -- all the things we had just told him. We knew he wasn't listening and that we had to go around him to save our son.

In the end, Groopman told WebMD, patients can tell if their doctor is listening to them by carefully listening themselves to what their doctor says. If the doctor doesn't recall something you said minutes earlier, politely point this out, and ask the physician if he or she is distracted. Some physicians may be offended, but you will grab their attention -- and perhaps save your life.

Alice Kahn, RN, NP, spent eight years as a reporter and columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. She currently works as a clinician in the Chemical Dependency Recovery Program and as a research nurse-practitioner in the Women's Health Initiative Hormone Study at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. She is the author of five books, including Your Joke Is in the E-mail.

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