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How to Protect Yourself Against Interrupting Doctors

Kelsey Tyler

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.”

Offload responsibility

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.

Show Comments (6)
  1. x

    Most expensive healthcare system in the world. Absolutely pathetic that we’ve come to a point where this article even needed to be written.

    1. cj


  2. No excuses

    I had a gyn doc shove a speculum inside of me, no lube nothing to take a pap exam, is it because he’s stressed about the job. I had doctor tell me I might be having issues with my throat because I told him I like girls, I wasn’t even sexually active, and I was suffering from tonsillitis!!!!!! I was 16 at the time. For years I’ve been telling my gyn doc that I’m having stabbing pain in my vagina for 2 years and he kept ignoring me come to find out I have vulvodynia!!!!

  3. DH

    Some very good points here but I would take issue with some of the statements made that seem to let doctors off the hook.

    First is: “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.” No, in my opinion time does not run out until the doctor has addressed all of our concerns. If he/she is not managing their time properly, that is their fault. And, besides, when is the last time a doctor saw you right at your appointment time, or you even got taken into the examining room right at your appointment time where you have an additional wait? If the doctor needs more time, then the next patient can wait, just like we did. Nor should we have to wait for, and pay for, a second appointment to get our questions/issues resolved.

    Second, most doctors SAY they went into medicine to help people. But, in my opinion, in reality, most of them go into medicine for the money and prestige that comes with their MD.

    Third, I don’t accept the notion that we should let doctors off the hook when they seem not to care or are rude, and that we should write it off to time pressure. Many doctors really don’t care, or don’t care very much, although many also do care a lot. But those who really do care manage to convey that, even though they are under the same time and other pressures as the doctors who are just trying to get you in and out of the office as quickly as possible. So, let’s quit making excuses for the callous, rude doctors who are just in it for the money and prestige.

  4. Maria

    If a doctor interrupts me while I am talking or rushes me through my appointment, I will find another doctor who listens to me and doesn’t rush me through my appointment.

  5. Caroline

    I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Type I, or commonly known in as Classical Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. People who suffer from this specific subtype of that rare genetic connective tissue disorder often also have cardiovascular and cardiac complications. I was diagnosed with cEDS at age 28 in late 2017 by a medical geneticist, who then referred me to a cardiologist in the area.

    Unfortunately, as a single female, living in a state where I have no family and no emotional support, and I also happen to have a genetic condition that makes me look 10 years younger than I am, I was familiar with being treated poorly by the medical community. However, the way that cardiologist treated me was something for the record books. After undergoing 12+ incredibly invasive tests in just under one month, all while maintaining my full time job and being chronically ill, my cardiologist decided to deliver all 22 of my new diagnoses in one singular appointment. An appointment that I attended by myself of course. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. My doctor opened up the appointment as he did all others, by instructing me to ask “no questions until the end”. Obviously, I was so confused and freaked out, I didn’t remember very much by the end of the appointment to ask.

    It took me over 2 months to finally obtain all 90 pages of my medical records from his clinic, which I needed in order to seek out new specialists. I never saw that doctor ever again.

    *I’ve also had 3 pain management specialists put me in sobbing tears, and another one refused to make eye contact with me throughout the entirety of my appointment…but really, what young female *hasn’t* had a terrible appointment with a pain management doctor??

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