November 14th, 2012 at 10:00 am
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Tips for caregivers: how to talk to doctors

by Dorian Martin

Early in my caregiving role for Mom, I really didn’t know what to ask health care personnel about her condition. Often when I’d accompany her to doctor’s appointments, the physician would come in, take some readings (blood pressure, heart rate), check her lungs, say a sentence or two to us, and then leave. One particular pulmonologist rarely stayed more than three minutes with Mom.

I also found that I was at a loss during the individual care planning meetings that were held periodically at Mom’s nursing home. I’d go to these meetings and listen to what the different staff members had to say, for example, the director of nursing or the activity director. However, I often left feeling like I wasn’t getting the big picture of Mom’s status.

Finally, I realized that I needed to be proactive in developing a list of questions prior to any appointment or meeting so that I could get the information I needed to truly understand what was going on with Mom. I also started making sure to ask follow-up questions and seek clarifications on medical terminology and “doctor speak” that I didn’t understand.

2 tip sheets help you make the most of appointments

In retrospect, I wish I had known about tip sheets like the ones created by two organizations:

  1. The National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA)’s list of tips is designed to improve the communications between the doctor and the caregiver.
  2. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a thorough list of questions to ask health care providers, with topics such as medical care in general, medical tests and procedures, how the doctor’s office works, the cost of medical care, and plans for discharge from the hospital or health care facility.

While all of these tips are useful, some really struck me as being especially important, such as these examples from the NFCA tip sheet:

  • Caution for caregiver: “Recognize that not all questions have answers — especially those beginning with ‘why.’”
  • Advice for doctors: “Think about the practicality of the treatments you suggest and consider their effect on the entire family, not just their medical efficacy.”

Both of these questions serve as reminders of the difficult decisions and potential bad news that can come with caring for someone. Discussions between caregivers and physicians and other medical personnel need goals, for example, to stay honest about all ramifications of the choices that are being made. It’s also important to plan for end-of-life care with medical staff and elders, as I discussed in a related blog post, End-of-life conversations about a good death.

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One Response to “Tips for caregivers: how to talk to doctors”

  1. Sarah

    We often forget that the doctor’s are so busy with a number of other patients they often forget that they might have some explaining or questions to answer. They, more often than not, do not automatically sit down to express the whats and whys of the medical care they are giving out, but are more than willing to answer questions asked. As caregivers, we know there are things we should know, but we often do not know how to express those questions. This helps us get prepared to ask the doctors of the one’s we are caring for. So thank you for pointing us in the direction of some good questions to ask!

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