Understanding and Remembering What the Doctor Says

There are many reasons why people often don’t understand or remember important parts of talks with their doctors. Just as important, there are many TEAMWORK tools you can use to help you with this important part of your cancer experience:

Ask a family member or friend to go with you

Taking along someone with whom you’re comfortable can make the visit less stressful and can help you remember what the doctor says. The person who goes with you to your visit should be able to do three things: give you emotional support; listen and remember accurately what the doctor says; and think objectively about what is said.

Take notes during the visit

Take notes (or have a family member or friend take them) carefully enough so that they’ll make sense to you when you get home. Ask the doctor to repeat something if you weren’t able to get it all down on paper.

Try to picture (visualize) what is being explained to you

Ask your doctor to show you a picture or drawing that will help you understand where your cancer is, how tests will be performed, and how your cancer will be treated. If you can take a copy of the picture or drawing home, it will be easier to explain things to your family.

Ask the doctor to explain in terms familiar to you

It’s only after you understand what’s being said that you’ll be an effective partner in your treatment and recovery.

Ask how you can learn more

Your doctor can refer you to a pamphlet, book, videotape, or other resource to help you understand the procedure or treatment that is being explained.

Reword your question and/or the doctor’s answer

If you don’t understand the doctor’s answer, ask the question in a different way, or ask the doctor to explain the answer in a different way.

Verbalize (say) what you heard

Repeat to the doctor what you thought he or she said. That gives the doctor feedback on what you heard and, if necessary, an opportunity to clear up any communication problems.

Take a small recording device like a tape recorder or cell phone with you

Ask in advance if your doctor would mind you recording the session, explaining that it will help you better understand and follow the advice given. It also can allow you to be more relaxed when seeing the doctor, since it will free you from note taking. Still, give full attention to the doctor’s explanations, asking questions when you need to. Recordings of key doctor visits also can help your family. No matter how well a doctor communicates, it’s often difficult for a person to fully understand, recall, and explain to someone else exactly what was said. Playing the recording for family members means they (and you) hear the conversation just as it occurred, without “interpreting” or having to recall what you thought was said. The recording can also help out-of-town family. They can feel more assured when you allow them to hear parts of the recording by phone. In one study, hospital discharge interviews were recorded between 48 patients and their physicians. When later asked if the recording had been helpful, the patient responses were highly favorable: 91% thought the recording helped them to understand what the doctor said, 75% found it helpful to have their loved ones listen to the recording, and 86% believed the recorded interviews improved their health care.