Communicating with Your Doctor

The relationship with a doctor is a very personal one, built on communication and trust. In choosing a doctor, the "chemistry" between the two of you must work. You must be able to trust, confide in and tell your doctor about your health problems, including all symptoms. Your doctor, in turn, should listen to you, give you options and feedback and have your best interest in mind.

Here are some things you can do to help build an effective partnership:

Be Organized

Doctors are busy, so you need to know how to get the most from their limited time with you. This means that you must be organized and focused on the issues you want to address.

Think in advance about the questions you want answered. Write down and prioritize those questions, highlighting the main three or four you want to discuss. Send a list of the questions to your doctor in advance, if you think that would be helpful.

Keep Good Records

Provide your doctor with good, accurate information about your symptoms and medications so he or she has the necessary tools to accurately diagnose your condition and prescribe appropriate treatment. A list of medications and supplements you are taking, recent symptoms and the dates at which they occurred, any recent tests and names of other doctors you are seeing can be useful information to share with your doctor.

The better you are able to communicate your needs and concerns, the better your doctor can respond.

Set the Tone

Let your doctor know how much or how little you want to participate in the decision-making process and whether you want very detailed information about all treatment options or just general information. Inform your doctor of any cultural beliefs that may affect your treatment choices or preferences.

Be Assertive

There is virtually nothing more important than your health. Just as you would not buy a car without asking questions, don't be afraid to ask your doctor questions. If your concerns are not addressed to your satisfaction, be assertive. Let your doctor know that you still have questions and ask if an additional appointment can be set up, whether the appointment can be extended or if there are other staff members who can address your questions.

Be Understanding

Balance assertiveness with respect and understanding. Although it's important to let your doctor know your needs or if you are dissatisfied, it's equally important to voice appreciation for positive aspects of your communication and treatment. Keep in mind that many of your questions can be addressed by a nurse, a social worker or by the staff at the Cancer Resource Center.

Know How to Keep in Touch

Before you leave, find out the best way to keep in touch between office visits, whether through the nurse, via email or by leaving messages at the front desk.

Before Your Visit

  • Take a list of specific questions to your appointment, making sure to list the most important ones first.
  • Familiarize yourself with your medical history, so you can convey it concisely to your doctor. Writing out a brief synopsis to give a new doctor can be helpful and save time.
  • Keep a diary to track your symptoms and concerns. Convey these clearly to your doctor.
  • List medications you are taking with their dosages. Tell your doctor about any medication changes.
  • Notify your oncologist or the scheduler ahead of time if you think your questions will take an extended time to answer. This allows the staff to arrange the schedule accordingly.

During Your Visit

  • Tape-record your visit or bring a pencil and notebook to take notes. You also may bring a trusted friend or relative to take notes for you.
  • Keep your discussion focused, making sure to cover your main questions and concerns, your symptoms and how they impact your life.
  • Ask for clarification if you don't understand what you have been told or if you still have questions.
  • Ask for explanations of treatment goals and side effects.
  • Many cancer specialists work closely with other team members. Ask if there is anyone else you should meet.
  • Let your doctor know if you are seeing other doctors or health care providers.
  • Share information about any recent medical tests.
  • Let your doctor know how much information you want and if you have religious or cultural beliefs that affect your treatment.
  • Stand up for yourself or have a friend or family member advocate for you if your concerns are not addressed.
  • Balance assertiveness with friendliness and understanding.

More Information:

For additional information or resources, please visit:

Cancer Resource Center
1600 Divisadero St., First Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 885-3693


Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.