When it comes to listening, doctors don’t necessarily have the best track record. You can chalk it up to time constraints or power imbalances in the exam room, but patients complain about not feeling heard all the time. Research backs up the gripe: In one 2019 study, researchers analyzed 112 doctor-patient encounters and found that doctors only heard patient concerns 36 percent of the time. In more than half of the encounters, doctors only let patients talk for an average of 11 seconds before butting in.
Interrupting isn’t merely an annoyance for patients; it’s an impediment to high-quality care. “If clinicians are feeling pressured by time commitments and are frequently interrupting patients, they might miss important information and have a superficial understanding of the main concerns of their patients,” says Dr. Naykky Singh Ospina, an internist who coauthored the study.
To their credit, many doctors are working on their listening skills. Singh Ospina says there’s an increased emphasis on improving patient-clinician interactions in health systems across the country. Still, patients can improve their chances of having productive, two-sided conversations during appointments. Here are expert-backed tips to help you catch, and hold, your doctor’s attention.
Bring notes to your appointment
Kate Sweeny, a health psychologist at the University of California-Riverside, says going to your appointment with a plan for what you want to say and ask can be an effective way to make sure you get all your questions answered — especially if the doctor bulldozes the conversation.
To prevent yourself from losing track of your thoughts while the doctor is talking, Sweeny recommends writing down specific questions or talking points beforehand. “It can be helpful if you have your plan written down in some way,” she says, “because it makes clear to the doctor that you’re not just rambling. You have a plan, and it was important enough to write down.”
Your notebook can also act as a buffer during potentially awkward interactions. If the doctor won’t let you get a word in or seems to be rushing through your appointment, you can point to your notes to signal that you still have more questions to ask.
If polite pointing doesn’t do the trick, speak up. “Bring out your list and say ‘I want to make sure my top priorities get addressed,” says Dr. Donna Zulman, a primary care physician at Stanford Health Care who researches healthcare delivery for patients with chronic conditions. “And if time runs out, you can always ask for your doctor to make a note in your chart or set up another appointment related to your notes.”
Hit your checklist quickly
At the beginning of an appointment, most doctors will ask “How are you?” or “What can I do for you today?” Zulman recommends using that introductory question as a trigger to share your most important concerns. “Every moment in an appointment is precious, so it can be really helpful for me when I understand what’s really important to the patient so I know what to address,” says Zulman. “When the doctor asks how you’re doing, you can answer, and then say ‘There are three things I want to talk about today, and the most important thing is such and such.’”
In other words, don’t get too caught up in pleasantries. If you lay out your needs directly and clearly, you’ll give your doctor something to focus on off the bat, which can help prevent interruptions.
Humanize the interaction
While it’s important to hit your agenda items during an appointment, Zulman is hesitant to suggest skipping small talk altogether. Research suggests that most doctors choose to pursue medicine because they want to help people, but job pressures monopolize their time and get in the way of connecting with patients.
Hearing about your health goals can remind a doctor that you’re a person with interests and values. For instance, explain that you want to fix your sleep problems so you’ll have enough energy to play with your kids, or that you’re trying to work out regularly to help manage your anxiety.
“If you keep the interaction purely transactional,” she says, “there’s a potential risk of missing the relationship piece that could really help your doctor.”
On the flip side, Zulman says engaging with the doctor about their personal life can have similar benefits. “Bringing up human things in conversation can help bring the clinician back to the present to remind them what their work is all about,” says Zulman, “and out of the mindset of quality metrics and time issues.”
“I find it really helpful if a patient sends me a message ahead of time about their priorities in the next appointment.”
“Getting to know your doctor might not only forestall interruptions, but could have other benefits as well,” says Lauren Howe, a social psychologist who studies the role of social relationships in organizational settings including healthcare. “Some research suggests that engaging more socially with a provider can improve patients’ response to treatment, perhaps by cultivating trust.”
These human interactions, Howe adds, “don’t necessarily require taking more of doctors’ time, just spending the time you have differently — smiling, making more eye contact, a short comment here and there.”
Time constraints are an unfortunate reality in healthcare, and something doctors frequently lament themselves. The pressure to manage heavy patient loads; the decision fatigue that comes with seeing so many patients back to back; and the added work of updating patients’ electronic health records — these are all stressors that can interfere with the patient-doctor relationship.
While the need to stay on schedule may be the reason a doctor interrupts you, there are ways to maximize the time you do have and make your appointment feel less hurried. One thing you can try to do is lighten your doctor’s workload by making use of other providers and staff who work in the same practice or facility. For example, Zulman says many doctors’ offices have clinical pharmacists who can help with medication management. And if you have a chronic illness that requires closer monitoring, your doctor may be able to recommend other in-office services.
“If you’re finding you have a lot of issues going on and you’re not getting time with the doctor, you can always ask about other services to offload some of those routine tasks,” Zulman says. “That way, your doctor can focus on the things they’re most equipped to do.”
Prep your doctor
You can also prep your doctor ahead of time by asking them to add your next appointment’s priorities to your chart, or by messaging them through an online patient portal. Giving your clinician an idea of what you’d like to discuss can help them stay on track during your time together, and potentially prevent unwelcome interruptions or one-sided conversations.
“I find it really helpful if a patient sends me a message ahead of time about their priorities in the next appointment,” says Zulman. “I can take that information and put it into my pre-charted note for them and possibly even give it some thought beforehand.”
Don’t take it personally
“If your doctor interrupts you,” Howe says, “it’s probably because they are exhausted, under time pressure, or otherwise stressed by their job, and not because they don’t think that listening to you is important.”
When we judge other people’s behavior, Howe explains, “we often overweight their personality or disposition as an explanatory factor and underweight situational factors.” In psych research, this habit is called the fundamental attribution error.
If you feel like a doctor is being rude, remind yourself that it probably has nothing to do with you, and may not be an accurate reflection of their personality.
“Instead of getting stressed out or angry about being interrupted,” Howe says, “we can simply take a moment and then re-state what we were trying to say.”
This story has been updated with additional quotes.