Improve the Doctor Visit with your Aging Parents: Speak Up for Better Doctor Patient Communication

There is increasing pressure on doctor visits in our health care system. Doctors feel compelled to see more and more patients in the course of a day. A profit-driven system limits the amount of time with each patient. Appointments are shorter and shorter, as more patients are seen in a day. Many people feel dissatisfied with their experience with their doctor, and their own health can suffer for it -- even when they have regular doctor visits.

In addition to the time constraints, other factors taint the quality of doctor patient communication. Doctors speak a language that is not common for people every day. Your parents have probably experienced the numerous health professionals talking to each other, and the patient, your aging parent, can feel left out of the equation. It's hard for patients to feel comfortable asking to clarify terms that don't make sense, or to question treatment options that they can't even spell. Improving the doctor visit is a key to improving their health.

doctor visits

Yet, studies have shown that improved patient satisfaction with doctor visits can actually lead to better health. People will take medications more effectively when they are clear about the directions. Patients heal faster when they believe they have had an active part in the decision-making. Doctor visits can be more accurate, and faster diagnoses can happen when people are not hesitant to share all their symptoms. And many medical mistakes can be prevented in doctor visits.

To this end, The Joint Commission has established a public campaign to improve doctor visits by improving doctor patient communication. The Joint Commission is a national organization that sets standards for patient safety in hospitals, nursing homes, and doctor visits, and then verifies that the different institutions are meeting those standards in a process called accreditation. They believe that when patients are empowered to be active partners in doctor visits and throughout all of their care, the whole health care system will be more effective.

The Speak Up campaign lets people in a variety of health care settings have a sense of why they should be proactive and talk to their doctors and other health professionals. It also gives guidance on what to talk about. They provide a number of free pamphlets that can be downloaded to take with you to doctor visits. These booklets address the conversations that people should have in different health care settings.

The basics of how people should advocate for themselves in each health care setting are the same. The principals for actively managing your care are essential for a routine doctor visit in the office or hospital or nursing home. Because the The Joint Commission has no restrictions on copyrights for this information, I can share the basics with you. I urge you to use it to help prep your aging parents for all future doctor visits.

[The text below is from SPEAK UP: HELP PREVENT ERRORS IN YOUR CARE. It specifically refers to hospital visits, but the major points are applicable to any doctor visit.]

Help Prevent Errors in Your Care

To prevent health care errors, patients are urged to... Speak Up - Tm

Speak up if you have questions or concerns. If you still don't understand, ask again. It's your body and you have a right to know.

  • Your health is very important. Do not worry about being embarrassed if you don't understand something that your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional tells you. If you don't understand because you speak another language, ask for someone who speaks your language. You have the right to get free help from someone who speaks your language.

  • Don't be afraid to ask about safety. If you're having surgery, ask the doctor to mark the area that is to be operated on.

  • Don't be afraid to tell the nurse or the doctor if you are about to get the wrong medicine.

  • Don't be afraid to tell a health care professional if you think he or she has confused you with another patient.

    Pay attention to the care you get. Always make sure you're getting the right treatments and medicines by the right health care professionals. Don't assume anything.

  • Tell your nurse or doctor if something doesn't seem right.

  • Expect health care workers to introduce themselves. Look for their identification (ID) badges.

  • Notice whether your caregivers have washed their hands. Hand washing is the most important way to prevent infections. Don't be afraid to remind a doctor or nurse to do this.

  • Know what time of the day you normally get medicine. If you don't get it, tell your nurse or doctor.

  • Make sure your nurse or doctor checks your ID. Make sure he or she checks your wristband and asks name before he or she gives you your medicine or treatment.

    Educate yourself about your illness. Learn about the medical test you get, and your treatment plan.

  • Ask your doctor about the special training and experience that qualifies him or her to treat your illness.

  • Look for information about your condition. Good places to get that information are from your doctor, your library,respected websites and support groups.

  • Write down important facts your doctor tells you. Ask your doctor if he or she has any written information you can keep.

  • Read all medical forms and make sure you understand them before you sign anything. If you don't understand, ask your doctor or nurse to explain them.

  • Make sure you know how to work any equipment that is being used in your care. If you use oxygen at home, do not smoke or let anyone smoke near you.

    Ask a trusted family member of friend to be your advocate (advisor or supporter).

  • Your advocate can ask questions that you may not think about when you are stressed.

  • Ask this person to stay with you, even overnight, when you are hospitalized. You will be able to rest better. Your advocate can help make sure you get the right medicines and treatments.

  • You advocate can also help remember answers to questions you have asked. He or she can speak up for you when you cannot speak up for yourself.

  • Make sure this person understands the kind of care you want. Make sure he or she knows what you want done about life support and other life-saving efforts if you are unconscious and not likely to get better.

  • Go over the consents for treatment with your advocate before you sign them. Make sure you both understand exactly what you are about to agree to.

  • Make sure your advocate understands the type of care you will need when you get home. Your advocate should know what to look for if you condition is getting worse. He or she should also know who to call for help.

    Know what medicines you take and why you take them. Medicine errors are the most common health care mistakes.

  • Ask about why you should take the medication. Ask for written information about it, including its brand and generic names. Also ask about the side effects of all medicines.

  • If you do not recognize a medicine, double-check that it is for you. Ask about medicines that you are to take by mouth before you swallow them. Read the contents of the bags of intravenous (IV) fluids. If you're not well enough to do this, ask your advocate to do it.

  • If you are given an IV, ask the nurse how long it should take for the liquid to run out. Tell the nurse if it doesn't seem to be dripping right (too fast or too slow.)

  • Whenever you get a new medicine, tell your doctors and nurses about allergies you have, or negative reactions you have had to other medicines.

  • If you are taking a lot of medicines, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist if it is safe to take those medicines together. Do the same thing with vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs.

  • Make sure you can read the handwriting on prescriptions written by your doctor. If you can't read it, the pharmacist may not be able to either. Ask somebody at the doctor's office to print the prescription, if necessary.

  • Carry an up-to-date list of the medicines you are taking in your purse or wallet. Write down how much you take and when you take it. God over the list with your doctor and other caregivers.

    Use a hospital, clinic, surgery center, or other type of health care organization that has been carefully checked out. For example, The Joint Commission visits hospitals to see if they are meeting The Joint Commission's quality standards.

  • Ask about the health care organization's experience in taking care of people with your type of illness. How often do they perform the procedure you need? What special care do they provide to help patients get well?

  • If you have more than one hospital to choose from, ask your doctor which one has the best care for your condition.

  • Before you leave the hospital or other facility, ask about follow-up care and make sure that you understand all of the instructions.

  • Go to Quality Check at to find out whether your hospital or other health care organization is "accredited". Accredited means that the hospital or health care organization works by rules that make sure that patient safety and quality standards are followed.

    Participate in all decisions about your treatment. You are the center of the health care team.

  • You and your doctor should agree on exactly what will be done during each step of your care.

  • Know who will be taking care of you. Know how long the treatment will last. Know how you should feel.

  • Understand that more tests or medications may not always be better for you. Ask your doctor how a new test or medication will help.

  • Keep copies of your medical records from previous hospital stays and share them with your health care team. This will give them better information about your health history.

  • Don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion. If you are unsure about the best treatment for your illness, talk with one or two additional doctors. The more information you have about all kinds of treatment available to you, the better you will feel about the decisions made.

  • Ask to speak with others who have had the same treatment or operation you may have to have. They may help you prepare for the days and weeks ahead. They may be able to tell you what to expect and what worked best for them.

  • Talk to your doctor and your family about your wishes regarding resuscitation and other life-saving actions.

    Go to Senior Health Care
    Talk to your parents about their health care needs.

    Go to Elderly Depression page
    Talk about elderly depression with your parents.

    Go to Medical Specialists page
    Medical specialists could help enhance your senior parents' quality of life, if you understand how the system works.

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