Advice: Communicating With Medical Professionals

CommunicatingWithProfessionalsFamily carers have regular contact with GPs and many other health professionals, government agencies, and support organisations. Being able to communicate well with a wide range of professionals is an important part of caring.

It can be hard to build comfortable partnerships with medical professionals, who see many patients and their families every day, and have limited time to spend with individuals.

In a poll at Carers NZ’s website, over 31% of carers who responded (more than 600) cited dealing with medical professionals as the area of caring they found most difficult – many more than the next most tricky area (the relationship with the person being supported) which attracted just 11.25% of responses.

Clearly there is a need for health professions to understand carers and their needs better, and for carers to develop thoughtful strategies to improve this area of common stress.

The website of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners has a page which helps with understanding general practice and how you can get the most out of your next visit.

New Zealand’s legal self-help website HowToLaw has a ‘Medical Wishes’ page, where you can buy a legal declaration for your medical wishes.

Make Every Call Count

The higher your family member’s health needs, the more professionals you are likely to have contact with.

Managing the support needs of someone with high needs is a lot like running a small business – you need to organise appointments, coordinate helpers, manage money, and complete lots of forms and paperwork. Here are suggestions to save time, avoid stress, and get useful results for your family.

Avoid Interruptions

  • Make calls at quiet times of the day in your household.
  • Keep a notepad and pen handy to log questions and remind you what to ask when making calls.
  • Connect with the person on the other end of the line by making sure they understand why you are calling, and admitting you need their help if this is the case. If your query is urgent, make this clear.
  • Be assertive but not aggressive (don’t get angry; ask to speak with a supervisor or manager if you aren’t happy with answers to your questions).
  • Say ‘thank you’ before you hang up – a common courtesy many of us forget when we feel stressed or overloaded.

Making Medical Decisions

You and your family member have the right to understand any diagnoses, treatment options, and their potential side effects or risks. Here are questions to ask when a treatment or procedure is discussed:

  • Why has this procedure, treatment or test been recommended?
  • Is it painful?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Are other options available?
  • Will there be a hospital stay?
  • What results can we expect?
  • Tell us about the risks and benefits of this test, treatment or procedure?
  • What will happen if this is not done?
  • What are the next steps?
  • Will my family member need to make any temporary or permanent lifestyle changes because of the procedure or treatment?

 Questions for the Chemist

Most family carers have frequent contact with the chemist – a nearby source of helpful advice and practical support. Here are some questions you might want to ask.

  • Can this mix of drugs cause harmful interactions?
  • Can these drugs be taken without risk of addiction or withdrawal symptoms? What if we miss a dose?
  • What if my family member takes too much?
  • What are the risks of not finishing the prescription?
  • How often should this medication be reviewed?
  • What should be avoided with this medication (e.g. smoking, alcohol)?
  • Is driving affected by this medication?
  • Should we consider a medication management system – an inexpensive daily pill box, or a proper dosage system (available from your chemist at the time of dispensing)?

The Role of the GP Practice Nurse

Nurses are an integral part of the primary care team.

Practice nurses are all registered nurses. Some of them will also have done other qualifications and attended courses so they can help patients with special topics such as asthma, diabetes or sexual health. They are often available to discuss lab results or organise prescriptions. They can help you decide if you need to see the doctor or give other advice.

Practice nurses do immunisations, dressings and help with minor surgery. They may do health checks such as blood pressure, weight and blood sugar tests. Some practice nurses are trained to do cervical smear tests.

Individual nurses may have other special interests and skills that contribute to the quality of care you receive from your general practice.

Making the Most of Medical Visits

Research indicates that patients have 6 to 17 minutes to talk to a GP. Make every minute count.

Consider keeping a daily log of health information (a calendar with a large entry area for each day works well). Areas to monitor may include blood sugar levels, pain symptoms, temperature, pulse, blood pressure etc. Note anything out of the ordinary (pain, fever, nausea, lack of appetite, weight gain or loss, sores that don’t heal well, mole changes, unusual discharges, fatigue, confusion, anxiety). Log questions for the GP or other health professionals on this calendar. The day before an appointment, review the information – what do you want the professional to know; what questions do you want to ask? Transfer this information to a piece of paper or a small notebook, or take the calendar with you.

  • If your family member has more than one doctor, be sure that each knows about all medications etc, since dangerous interactions are possible.
  • Organise appointments for times of the day that are least stressful for you and your family member.
  • Leave plenty of time to get ready and for travel.

When Booking Appointments, and During/After Medical Visits

  • Explain that you will be accompanying your family member.
  • If you need to discuss a few things with the GP, say extra time may be needed so this can be scheduled.
  • State the main reason for the visit (a general check-up, a new and urgent medical issue, review of prescriptions etc).
  • Be on time.
  • If you need to cancel an appointment, give as much notice as possible.
  • At the appointment, prioritise the reason(s) for the visit. Start with the most important issue.
  • Describe issues or symptoms concisely. Tell the doctor when symptoms first appeared, how often they occur, etc. This will assist with diagnosis and treatment.
  • Bring a list of medications taken by your family member, including natural health treatments.
  • Be open and honest. Keeping information from the GP or other health professionals can have serious consequences. Issues relating to sexuality, memory loss, continence, and depression or anxiety can be side effects of medication.
  • Discuss any stressful situations. Don’t say things are fine if you are not coping with a symptom or care task. Professionals need to know how you’re faring in your caring role too.
  • Pay attention to what the health professional is saying. If the GP or other professional uses words or medical terms that are unfamiliar, ask for explanations. No question is silly or unimportant. Asking questions now can avoid problems later.
  • Take notes. Write down special instructions or comments so you can review them later.
  • Ask the GP or health professional if you can follow up by phone or email if you have more questions.
  • If you forget to ask something during your visit, don’t be afraid to make contact.
  • Comply with the treatment or plan you and your family member have agreed to during medical visits. If it’s not working, tell the GP or health professional as soon as possible.
  • Every third or fourth visit, bring in all of your family member’s prescriptions, over-the-counter treatments (including pain relief, natural remedies, and vitamins) and ask for a ‘brown bag review’.

Trust your own common sense. If you and your family member have doubts, seek a second opinion. If you aren’t happy with the GP or another health professional, despite your best efforts, find someone else. Your family’s wellbeing depends on it!

© Family Care NZ

Photo:, Kanate