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Talking to your doctor

Before the consultation

Do a bit of research before you see your doctor. Websites like this one, and those in our 'Useful Contacts' sections, will help you realize that your problem is very common and nothing to be embarrassed or shy about, and will help you prepare the best questions to ask your doctor.

Initiating the discussion

If you say something like "I have a problem which I want to discuss with you, but I find it difficult to talk about," the doctor will immediately be on your side. Another possibility is to write a few lines about your problem, take the note with you to your appointment and ask the doctor to read it. Or print a page from this website and take it with you to use as a starting point. Don't worry if talking makes you nervous or tearful – doctors are used to people being upset.

Ask questions

It sounds a simple thing to do, but when you're sitting in front of the doctor you might get embarrassed or worried that you're wasting their time. You're not! Doctors like a patient to participate in the conversation and ask questions. Always ask for something to be explained again if you don't understand it the first time. 
 
If you are prescribed medication you should find out:
  • How long will I need to take the treatment?
  • How will I know if the treatment is working?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • What do I do if I get those side effects?
  • Do I need to come back for a follow-up appointment?
If you have been given a provisional diagnosis until you have had tests to confirm the diagnosis, it is always worth asking the doctor "what else could it be?"
 
If you are having surgery, how can you give informed consent unless you know what the likely outcome is? So, don't be afraid to ask questons, such as:
  • How many of these operations have you done?
  • What sort of results do you get?
  • How do you compare to the national average?
  • What are the risks?
  • How likely is this surgery to make me better?
A good summary of questions to ask, and tips on what to do before, during and after your appointment, can be found here.

Take a list, make a list, leave a list

Taking a short list of questions that really matter to you can be very useful. Also, you may find it useful to make notes during the consultation so that you have a record of what the doctor has said. Some forward-thinking doctors will allow you to record the conversation. It sounds a slightly embarrassing thing to do, but if you ask at the beginning of the consultation: "Look, I'm a bit worried I won't remember all this. Do you mind if I record our conversation?" your doctor shouldn't have any objections. Finally, as well as making a list of the things you can do for yourself, it is worth leaving a list of the things you've agreed the doctor will do for you – an aide memoire for him or her.

Confidentiality

You may be concerned about confidentiality. The best way of dealing with this is to ask the doctor: "I have a rather embarrassing/personal problem that I want to discuss with you, but I am worried about confidentiality. How confidential is our discussion? Who will see the notes you make?" The professional codes of practice of doctors and nurses and other health professionals state that they have a duty not to disclose any information about individual patients to anyone without their consent (except in very exceptional circumstances).
 
Everyone working with your doctor – not just the doctors and nurses –has to keep information confidential. For example, in the UK, the Association of Medical Secretaries, Practice Managers, Administrators and Receptionists (AMSPAR) says its members are bound by the following rule: “Members will strictly observe and uphold the principles of confidentiality. Anything learned from a patient, a medical practitioner, patients’ records or correspondence must never be disclosed to an unauthorized person”.

What if you don't like your doctor?

You may dislike your doctor, or you may like him/her but feel he/she would be unsympathetic to this particular problem. If you genuinely don't like your doctor, you should change. Some practices will let you change to another doctor within the practice, or will let you make all your appointments with other doctors within the practice without officially changing. Some practices don't allow this, in which case your only option would be to change to another practice.
 
If you like your doctor, but don't want to discuss this particular problem with him/her, simply say to the receptionist: "Just for this one appointment, I would like to see Dr Y instead of Dr X."
 
Click on the video below for Dr Phil Hammond's top tips on getting the most out of your consultation with your doctor.

Advice for teenagers

Are you a teenager with a health problem that you don’t want your mother or father, or anyone else for that matter, to know about? It might be a sex problem, or wanting to go on the pill, or worries about drugs, alcohol, pregnancy or bullying at school, or feeling depressed. Are you concerned that if you talk to your doctor, your parents might be told? Or that the doctor will have to ask your parent’s permission before treating you (such as prescribing the contraceptive pill or the ‘morning-after’ pill, or arranging an abortion)? Or that someone might see you in the doctor’s waiting room and report back to your parents? Or that the doctor’s receptionist or nurse might gossip to others about your problem? Or that, if you need a prescription, someone will see you in the chemist? Or that the doctor will write to you at home - maybe with test results - and your parent will see the letter?

If you are worried for any of these reasons, here are some facts.

Does your doctor have to get your parent's permission to give you treatment? If you are 16 or 17, your doctor has to make sure you are ‘competent’ to make decisions about your own treatment. This simply means that you are able to understand the treatment and the effects it might have on you. If you are under 16, the law says that you can make your own decisions about treatment - including contraception and abortion - without your parent’s permission if:

  • you are ‘competent’ - you can clearly understand the treatment and how it will affect you
  • the doctor cannot persuade you to tell your parents
  • your health will suffer without the treatment and the treatment is in your best interests.

So if you are under 16, the doctor will talk to you about the problem and treatment to find out if you are ‘competent’ to make the decision yourself. The doctor will also ask why you don’t want your parents to know, and may suggest that you talk to your parents about the problem. The doctor has to do this by law. But if you say that you definitely don’t want your parents to be involved, the doctor cannot force you to tell them. Nor can your doctor tell your parents without your permission, even though you are under 16 (except in very exceptional circumstances mentioned below). Then the doctor has to decide if the treatment is ‘in your best interests’ – is it the right thing for you?

This discussion may sound a bit scary, but don’t let it put you off. All doctors are very concerned about the health of teenagers, and really do want teenagers to feel they can visit them without worrying. So your doctor will probably be very kind and sympathetic. If you would rather speak to a different doctor, tell the receptionist and this can be arranged. If you are very unlucky and your doctor is not helpful about a sex or pregnancy problem, in the UK you can contact Brook (www.brook.org.uk): they provide free, confidential sex advice for young people under the age of 25. 

Will the doctor, receptionist or nurse tell anyone else – such as your parents? Anything you discuss with the GP, any treatment you have and the results of any tests stay confidential. This means that the doctor, nurse, receptionist or anyone else working in the practice must not pass the information on. Even if you are under 16, nothing can be said to anyone – your parents or anyone in your family, care workers, college tutors – without your permission. Even if your parents are very friendly with the doctor, he or she is not allowed to talk about you without your permission. The doctor, or anyone else in the practice, will not even say whether or not you have visited the surgery. The only reason the doctor might have to pass on confidential information without your permission is to protect you or someone else from very serious harm. This is a very unusual situation, and the GP would always try to discuss it with you first.

What about being seen in the waiting room, or at the chemist with a prescription? There is no way round this difficulty. Of course someone might mention to your parents that they saw you at the doctor’s, so you should be prepared for a few questions. The same goes for the pharmacist, but try to choose a time when the shop is empty. Like the doctor, the pharmacist is not allowed to give information about your prescription to anyone else.




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Talking to your doctor can help get to the bottom of your problem!