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6 Things Your Doctor May Have Trouble Telling You

What your doctor may not mention could matter to your health.

3. “I don’t know what’s going on.” continued...

Back pain is one. Doctors are sometimes quick to blame it on a specific anatomical cause -- for instance, muscle strain or a bulging spinal disk -- even though most back pain is of unknown origin. 

Doctors are sometimes understandably reluctant to admit uncertainty. Some are so fearful of looking ignorant or incompetent that they act as if they know what’s causing a particular symptom even when they don’t. When this happens, they tend to order tests and treatments that are likely to prove needless.

What to do: How do you avoid the rush to possibly inappropriate care? Anytime a doctor suggests a test or treatment, ask questions. What will happen if you don’t get that test or treatment? How much will you benefit if you do? Don’t consent to the intervention until all your questions are answered. “You have to keep probing to know whether what the doctor is recommending is really supported by science,” Newman says.

4. “I’m not sure you got what I said.”

Doctors sometimes worry that what they tell a patient goes in one ear and out the other. Unfortunately, that’s often the case. On average, studies suggest, patients grasp only about half of what doctors tell them.

Yet the fault sometimes lies not with the patient’s inattention, but the doctor’s poor communication skills.

“Physicians tend to deliver information in long, dense mini-lectures,” says Debra Roter, DrPH, professor of health, behavior, and society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and the author of Doctors Talking with Patients/Patients Talking with Doctors: Improving Communication in Medical Visits. “They’ll say things like, “Let me explain to you the function of the pancreas” when what the patient wants to know what a diagnosis of diabetes means in practical terms.

To avoid misunderstanding, doctors could initiate a back-and-forth discussion with their patients. But not all do.

“Doctors are not good about assessing the patient’s understanding of our explanations,” says Dean Schillinger, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “We’re infamous for saying, ‘Are you clear about what I’ve told you?’ What we should be doing is asking patients to restate what we’ve told them.”

What to do: At the end of your appointment, if your doctor doesn't ask you to recap what they've told you, do so anyway, Schillinger suggests. Simply tell the doctor you want to make sure you understand, and then use your own words to relate what you think you were told.

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