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A nervous man talking to his doctor

Tips for Improving Communication with your Physician

Results of the COPD In America 2015 Study reported that almost a third of respondents were unaware of the stage of their COPD when they were diagnosed, and a similar amount are still unaware of their stage today. While this can be attributed to multiple factors, one of the most likely culprits is poor communication with his/her physician.

Communicating with our physicians, with or without a serious health condition, is always a fine balance – we want to have a say, but we also want our physicians to serve as the expert; we don’t want to be spoken to as children, but we also can’t understand some of their medical jargon. Pursuing the optimum level of discussion with our doctors is often easier said than done, so often, we just don’t bother. We sit quietly, nod at appropriate times, and hope for the best. Unfortunately, while this might seem like the path of least resistance to physician interaction, it could be harming you more than you think.

For some conditions, tests, numbers, and x-rays tell the doctor how the disease is progressing, how the treatment is working. But with COPD, a breathing test will only tell so much. Personal experience—your ability to walk to the mailbox, sleep without coughing, tell a story to your friends—is a large indicator of disease status and progression, but is the number one topic on which physicians and patients are misaligned.

So, what can be done to improve the communication and mutual understanding with your doctor? Well, it’s certainly a two-way street, and the recent drive toward patient-centric medicine within the professional community will hopefully improve physician interaction. But for those with COPD, here are a few tips to have a more beneficial relationship with your doctor:

  • Make a list. Before your appointment, make a list of the topics/questions you want to address with your physician. This is obviously easier said than done since our lives, and our memories, tend to get in the way. So one suggestion is to keep a pad right by your medication/inhaler. When you go to take your medication, jot down how you’re feeling or how well you think this medication is working. When it’s time to leave for your appointment, grab the pad and take it with you.
  • Talk to the nurse.  Many people tend to feel more comfortable talking about personal experiences and life impact with a nurse instead of our doctor. When she/he shows you to your exam room and takes your blood pressure, etc., tell her what’s on your mind and ask any questions you may have. Even if she/he isn’t able to answer them, she’ll mention the topic to your physician and the likelihood of it being addressed is much higher.
  • Tell a story. We as humans are more consistent and honest when we’re telling a story about ourselves1. You might think it takes too much time, but in fact, the narrative can reveal much more to your physician than if you’d simply answered yes/no questions. The more your doctor knows about your experience, the better he/she can treat you.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Politeness theory, originally formulated by Brown and Levinson in 19782, postulates that we have an instinct to verbally agree with authority figures or those we don’t know very well, despite what we think! In an effort to avoid discomfort, we will readily say “yes” in response to a question, even if we don’t actually agree. Try to remember that your physician is there to help you; if you don’t understand something, or if you’re not satisfied with a decision, speak up!
  • If my friend asks… When you and your doctor begin wrapping up the visit, be sure to ask two things:
    • What are the next steps for my COPD?—This question will ensure that you and your physician have a management plan, and more importantly, that you’re aligned on that management plan.
    • If my friend were to ask me what we discussed today in one sentence, what would I say? This will drive your doctor to recap the visit in simple terms, again ensuring a shared understanding of what was accomplished during your discussion.

Ultimately, our relationships with our physicians are as unique and diverse as our relationships with spouses, or family—there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But one way or another, it is important to understand your health, and your physician can serve as a great resource for that information.



  • Ruthir
    3 years ago

    I haven’t posted before but your site looks quite informative and I am looking forward to reading others comments and suggestions. This article about doctors is interesting and I do have a few comments about it. I am in my late 70s, have had copd for about 15 years but in the last two I have had to do oxygen 24/7. I have been feeling down quite a bit but try not to act this way around others. My Doctor is always in a hurry when I have an appointment but the last time I was there I told him how I was feeling and he said I needed to find some volunteer activities. I almost fell off my chair! I had to give up a lot of these when my disease became worse and I miss doing them but it is just too hard. I did Meals on Wheels, library in the genealogy department, historical society which I enjoyed very much. I had to quit working at age 67 and I also miss this. I have been seeing this same Dr. for almost 20 years but I swear he really doesn’t know anything about me. He always is anxious to get out the door and on to the next patient. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels completely dismissed by their doctor.

  • sids6932
    3 years ago

    I’m enrolled with Medicare Advantage HMO. These docs schedule 4 patients every 15 minutes which means they are in a hurry to move on. I am 80 years of age and my mind is
    very selective so I ask for written instructions which I may or may not get. Because I have lots of ailments besides COPD, I have a problem figuring out what to attribute to COPD. If I mention to many things I will have used up my alloted time. I am seeing a new Lung Doctor and no one asked me about my diabetes or how other ailments are affecting me. I had a terrible time yesterday with my breathing while at a Super Bowl party. Scared me some but finally figured out it was caused by being close to the kitchen where they were cooking with oil. Never read about this, but now I know. Kept me up most of last night with residual breathing problems. OK this morning….

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Sids6932 and thanks for posting your comment and recent experience with the Medicare Advantage HMO. Having only 15 minutes to spend with your physician for a visit is quite the challenge – we hear you! Perhaps it might be worth your while to prepare ahead of time by maintaining a written list of what you plan on discussing with the doctor. Having it in writing may make it a bit easier on you than committing everything to memory. It’s good to hear that you were able to determine the trigger for your breathing symptoms was caused by the oil cooking in the kitchen. Glad to hear that you’re feeling better this morning. Please check back with us from time to time and let us know how you’re doing.
    All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Janet Plank moderator
    3 years ago

    Very good and informative article. Thank you for this! Sharing!

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    3 years ago

    Thanks for letting us know, Janet. It’s always gratifying to hear the value you are finding in our published material. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

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