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When Your Doctor Doesn’t Listen — 10 Tips to Help Change that

When your doctor doesn’t listen — 10 tips to help change that.

Readers sometimes confide that they feel their doctors don’t listen. Perhaps you have felt this way too. Readers most often share feeling this way regarding discussions they’ve had with their oncologists about side effects from endocrine therapy.

You might want to read and download, Endocrine Therapy – Managing & Making Decisions About Your Aromatase Inhibitor Medication.

But, of course, endocrine therapy is not the only realm in which patients sometimes feel not listened to.

In fact, communicating effectively with your doctor can be challenging no matter what your issues are or the state of your health, right?

A common complaint readers share (again, most often regarding endocrine therapy treatment) is that their symptoms are dismissed as not that bad, pretty normal, or par for the course due to normal aging.

Annoying as hell, right?

Of course, most doctors are NOT dismissive, though sometimes they give this impression. And many doctors are indeed excellent listeners.

You might want to read, When Doctors Seem Dismissive.

It’s important to remember that doctors are NOT mind readers.

Therefore, the burden of effective patient/doctor communication (regarding your issues/questions) falls mostly on the patient. Yes, that means YOU. And me. Actually, all of us because at some point, we all are, or will be, patients. Even doctors!

Having said this, some doctors definitely need to step it up. After all, a huge part of being a compassionate, effective physician is being a good listener.

Docs, (and patients too) you might want to read this piece, Is the Patient Difficult? Or Are You Not Listening? by Dr. Don S. Dizon.

There are likely many reasons why some doctors are not particularly good at listening, but I suspect a primary reason is related to time, or the lack thereof.

Listening requires a conscious effort by the listener and time. The latter is often in short supply in the medical setting too. Nonetheless, lack of time cannot be the excuse for not listening.

In addition, there are perhaps other questions in need of exploring regarding this topic of listening such as:

Do doctors listen differently to women vs. men?

And what about the elderly?

I will leave those questions for another day.

But you might want to read, Why Don’t Doctors Believe Women? via Heart Sisters.

Doctors need to keep in mind that we patients are seeing you because, well, because we’re sick. Most of the time anyway. This in itself, means we are not at our best due to potentially, a lot of reasons.

In addition, much of illness is embarrassing. Sometimes super embarrassing.

Personal matters are often being discussed. We might be seeing you without all our clothes on. We are exposing ourselves. Literally.

In other words, being a patient is hard. Damn hard.

And for some of us, it’s even harder due to our specific disease or condition or even due to our personalities.

For instance, I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like others being in my personal space. Heck, I don’t even like getting my hair cut. So yeah, being a breast cancer patient is my worst nightmare. Well, one of them anyway.

So let’s talk about how to communicate more effectively with your doctor.

When your doctor doesn’t listen—10 tips to help change that:

1. Go in prepared. Write stuff down and get specific so you have documentation about what ails you and/or what your issues are.

For example, if you’re a cancer patient, keeping a journal or record of some kind is super helpful. Record your symptoms, side effects and personal observations. Be specific. If your joints hurt, which ones? Having pain, where exactly? Are there certain times you feel worse or better? How are you sleeping? Are you eating well? Record dates and times whenever possible. Again, specifics are helpful.

2. Make a list of all questions. Yes, I mean ALL.

The list of questions is a no-brainer, right? But again, be specific. And don’t forget to take your questions with you when you go out the door to your appointment. (I have forgotten mine.)

And after you ask your questions, write down the answers. If you’re like me, by the time you get home, you sometimes forget what they were, right?

3. Take someone with you to appointments IF it will help put you more at ease and give you confidence to be more direct.

Obviously, if another pair of eyes and ears makes you more uncomfortable, going it alone is better.

4. Insist on speaking with a doctor before any disrobing takes place so you begin your appointment from a position of less vulnerability.

This is especially important when you are meeting a new doctor. Sometimes time doesn’t allow for this when your doctor isn’t new, but feel free to request this if it matters to you.

5. Don’t settle and keep pressing.

Be sure you understand answers, directions, reasons or whatever. Get stuff repeated until you understand. Otherwise, what’s the point of being there?

Don’t worry about being labeled “that difficult patient”.

(I’ve probably been called that. I know I’ve been called angry; I read that via my patient portal.)

Who cares?

6. Don’t be intimidated. Okay, try not to be.

Again, as a patient, you are in a vulnerable state. I get that. We all get that. But this is your appointment, your life. Speak up. Voice your concerns. Ask your questions. Step out of your comfort zone. Stick up for what you believe and/or want. Don’t be put off.

7. It’s okay to interrupt the doctor.

This doesn’t mean you get to be rude. That is never okay. However, it does mean you can interrupt to say things like: excuse me, that’s not helpful. Please repeat that. I don’t think that’ll work. I already tried that. It feels like you aren’t listening. Or whatever.

8. Ask for referrals if you need more (or different) help.

If you are too uncomfortable with a certain question, ask to speak to someone else. This could be a nurse (if your concern is immediate) or a different physician in a different area of expertise (if you can wait for availability). If you need more, or something different, there are options.

If necessary, switch doctors.

9. If available to you, utilize your patient portal.

You can ask uncomfortable questions or bring up topics you want to discuss there beforehand. Works nicely if you remember stuff you still want to ask once you get home too.

10. Remember no concern is too small, or too big, to bring up.

If something’s bothering you, mention it. If you don’t, you’ll likely regret that you didn’t when you get home. Your doctor has likely heard it all before, perhaps just not from you. So, speak up. (Yes, I know it’s hard.)

When your doctor doesn’t listen, I hope one or two of these tips help.

Finally, it’s important to remember that communicating effectively with your doctor(s) is really self-advocating, and self-advocating is a skill. Like other skills it takes practice.

You will get better at it. You will.

This doesn’t mean it will be ever be easy. It sure isn’t for me.

But hopefully it can get a little easier.

Sometimes that’s enough.

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Share about a time you felt not listened to – or about a time you did feel listened to.

Is it hard for you to talk frankly with your doctors and/or others on your medical team?

What tip(s) might you add?

When Your Doctor Doesn't Listen - 10 Tips to Help Change that #doctors #patients #womenshealth #menhealth #cancer #illness

Image by Alex Proimos via flickr and adapted under CC licensing

Carolyn Thomas (@HeartSisters)

Thursday 6th of May 2021

Hi Nancy - terrific article, chock-a-block full of wisdom and common sense. Thanks so much for including a link to my "Why Don't Doctors Believe Women' blog post.

I also like to recommend Dr. Jerome Groopman's wonderful book "How Doctors Think" - which explains a lot about doctor-patient communication, along with his recommendation of 3 useful questions to ask if you believe your doctor is not taking you seriously, or (worse) misdiagnosing:

1. “What else could it be?” 2. “Is there anything that doesn’t fit?” 3. “Is it possible I have more than one problem?”

Thanks again - Happy Mother's Day to you! xoxo

Kristie L Konsoer

Thursday 6th of May 2021

This week I've used the phrase "I need help" in myChart messages with my PCP and dermatologist. My feeling is this raises the bar and my doctor is less likely to ignore me. It helped move issues forward a little bit. But I have to stay on it if I expect to get help.

Elaine Heebner

Thursday 6th of May 2021

I was delighted to see an article in your blog by Dr. Don Dizon: "Is the Patient Difficult or are You not Listening?" Dr. Dizon is my oncologist. He's super and listens. I read postings on forums and am grateful to have the oncologist I do because cancer treatment is hard enough without having a doctor who doesn't recognize you as a unique human being. I left two cancer care teams because I felt I was being treated at the convenience of the doctor, not in my best interest. We are often subjected to medical terrorism, spelling out the worst case scenarios in order to intimidate us into treatment we may not want or be ready for. I don't care if anyone thinks I'm difficult. This is my cancer, my body, my life. Unlike other doctors, right from the start, Dr. Dizon made it clear that he recognized I brought to treatment more than bad cells, but a unique personality with unique issues, which affect the way I respond to treatment. I realized right away that he practices medicine with me, not at me.


Thursday 6th of May 2021

Elaine, I only "know" Dr. Dizon via Twitter and from a few articles of his I've read. Even with my limited knowledge about him, I sense he's a very capable and caring doctor and you're fortunate to have him as your oncologist. I'm not surprised that he's a good listener. Love that piece of his and had to include it. A doctor who practices medicine with you, not at you, is a keeper alright. Tell him hello from me sometime. Thank you for sharing about the doctor/patient relationship you have with him.

Linda Boberg

Wednesday 1st of May 2019

I would add, don't be afraid to talk back or challenge. My 'old' oncologist drove me away when she said, "Why didn't you do. . .?" at three different appointments. All three times the doc implied that I didn't do something, I had an answer: Why didn't you tell me you were in the hosptal? 1)You don't have privileges in the hospital I was in; Why didn't you call me right after your mammogram? 2)you did not tell me to call you after the mammogram and doesn't it show in the portal that it was fine? I need to see you right away - RIGHT AWAY - after these scans. 3)Do you mean you want me to come in IMMEDIATELY after the scan? And when she DID tell me something that other doctors were disagreeing with I said, "the radiologist said I do not need a bilateral Mammogram every 6 months. Why do you want it done?" Cancer did teach me to be my own advocate, that's for sure.


Thursday 2nd of May 2019

Linda, It's hard for many of us to challenge physicians, as they are the experts. But we are the experts on ourselves, so sometimes challenging is necessary. As long you are always respectful, I think you can pretty much say whatever you want. And yes, cancer certainly teaches you to be your own best advocate. Pretty much a necessity. As you know. Thank you for sharing.


Wednesday 1st of May 2019

Another thing I thought of is to keep repeating the question if you don't get a clear answer or if you don't understand. And summarize the info back to the doctor if you need to do so for your own clarity. I find that doctors often speak very fast "in another language," not on purpose of course.

Also, it's OK to suggest other options or ask for other options. "What do you think about this?" Or, "What other options are there?" Or, "How strongly do you feel about this?" etc.


Thursday 2nd of May 2019

Lindsay, Good tip to keep repeating your question if need be. And yeah, many doctors do talk fast! I experienced that just this week at an appointment. I did what you suggested and summarized back to her. So, thanks for mentioning that too. Thank you for sharing some excellent tips.

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