Tips for Talking with Doctors and Medical Personnel

Posted by Elaine C. Pereira on October 17, 2018
Every business, sport, and endeavor—from automotive to insurance, computers, and more— has its own set of jargon. If you aren’t familiar with the jargon, it can cause confusion when reaching out for help. Unfortunately, a field where knowledge is especially important, often accompanying time-sensitive decisions, is medicine.

My Story of Medical Miscommunication

Consider this true story: Days before my mother-in-law passed away, she slipped into a coma. I delicately tried to translate what the doctors were telling us to my husband, Joseph, about his mother’s very fragile health and eminent death, but it fell on emotionally deaf ears.

We were with her in the hospital when she started having seizures. He was a train wreck knowing, but not really processing, how terminal she was. With anguish, he questioned, “her seizures can be controlled, right?” Failing to recognize how desperate he was for a miracle that wasn’t coming, she responded, “yes, seizures are easily managed with medication.”  

She did not explain the consequences of erratic activity on a dying brain, fueling my husband’s misconception. He heard, “medicate the seizures and she’ll be okay.” Sadly, this added to the shock of his mom being moved to hospice care and passing away two days later.  

More than a year passed before Joe could really talk about and hear details concerning his mother’s death. Only then could I explain what really caused her seizures, my perception of the dialogue between him and the nurse, and how I felt she could have handled the situation more appropriately. He agreed.

Having a thorough genuine understanding of your medical health is crucial! Even within my own circle of friends and family, it’s not just my husband who’s been misled by medical mumbo jumbo. Like the Biblical Tower of Babel, medical personnel speak a foreign language when conversing with patients. 

How to Talk to Doctors Effectively by Controlling the NARRATIVE 

Whether it’s at a hospital, pharmacy, assisted living community, or anywhere in between, most of us will need to interact with medical personnel on our own behalf or others’. Consider the NARRATIVE strategy below when faced with these situations to help better understand doctors and improve the overall productiveness of medical conversations.

Take detailed notes at your appointments. 

Ask for everything in writing before you leave the doctor’s office, pharmacy, etc. and review it. If you are unclear about anything, ask additional questions before you leave. It’s more beneficial to have these conversations in person than calling back later.

Repeat what you heard and ask for validation if it’s correct or clarification if it is not.

Record the dialogue. Every state has different laws about recording a conversation, so ask for permission first. Obviously your intention is to be able to review the information later, but your medical team might refuse if they are wary of potential lawsuits.

Bring a second set of ears. It’s wonderful to have someone accompany you who speaks medical jargon. However, having a medical translator on retainer is an unlikely option for most people. If you can’t arrange for someone with medical expertise, “phone a friend.” Of course, in the case of a medical emergency, time sensitivity should take priority over arranging for additional attendees.

It is a reasonable expectation for your doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or other medical personal to be able to explain something to you in “plain English.” It’s okay to tell them to talk to you in a way that you can comprehend!  

The internet provides many reputable sites that can help explain medications, diagnoses, treatments, etc. in user-friendly language. However, there are several factors intertwined for each person’s specific medical conditions, which your doctor will always be more qualified in weighing for your customized health plans. The internet still provides generic guidelines that could help clarify typical terms, symptoms, treatments, etc. as well as testimonials.  

Verify the facts of your unique medical health situation. Don’t change health habits, begin trying new supplements, or stop taking a prescribed medication because your friends or family have had a similar health issue or believe they can speak to what you’re going through. Even the people whose opinion you value most are not medical experts.  

By definition, a medical emergency is time-sensitive and may require immediate, emotionally driven decisions very quickly. If at all possible, call someone to meet you at the ER, even if they have no particular medical expertise. Their calmer demeanor can help steady and they may be able to assess a situation more rationally. Circling back to my story, they may even be able to hear and digest things that you are incapable of fully processing at the time.  

If you are the medical personnel reading this article, remember what your patient audience is experiencing and who they are. They are overwhelmed, medically-challenged clients, not colleagues. As an experienced Occupational Therapist, many of my students and new employees made the same communication mistakes: they wrote reports or presented assessments in a language so technical only another OT could understand it. 

If you’re the person who is mystified by medical muck, control the narrative and talk through things until they become clear. By controlling your NARRATIVE, hopefully you can avoid experiencing a situation similar to my husband’s.

Elaine C. Pereira, MA OTR/L CDP CDC is an author, speaker, certified dementia practitioner and caregiver. Contact her at