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The Health Care System

Communicating with Health Care Professionals

As a family caregiver, you play a major role in your loved one's medical care. This means that you may be involved in making serious medical decisions, performing medical procedures, managing medication, monitoring the patient's health status, and reporting symptoms or health concerns to the health care team. These are important responsibilities, which can seem overwhelming. Thus, it is helpful to know how to communicate effectively with health care professionals.

Who Do I Call?

At any given time, there may be a variety of people involved in your loved one's medical care. Depending upon the diagnosis, there may even be a number of doctors from different areas of medicine (specialists) working with you and the patient. With so many people, you may feel confused and unsure about who to ask for help. At the time of the office visit or hospital discharge, ask the doctor who to call if you have questions. Also make sure that you are familiar with each member of the health care team involved in the patient's care.

Questions to Ask the Doctor:

What days/hours is the office open?
How are medical emergencies handled?
When is the best time to reach the doctor by phone, fax, or email?
Which method of communication does the doctor prefer?
Who can answer questions if the doctor is not available?
Who can you call after hours or when the doctor is away?
Who will have an up-to-date copy of the patient's file, including information about his/her condition, treatment plan, and medications?

When Do I Call?

You can call any member of the health care team at any point in your loved one's illness, treatment, and its aftermath. Doctors are very busy and often do not have a lot of time for answering questions over the phone. If you have basic questions about the care of your loved one, it may be best to call the nurse or physician assistant. They usually have more time to help you and can look up information in the patient's chart or consult with the doctor. However, if you have concerns about larger issues, you should not hesitate to ask for the doctor. For example, you should speak to the doctor when:

You would like to discuss the patient's diagnosis
There is a change in the patient's prognosis
You are concerned about a new symptom
A new medication is not working or is causing negative side effects
You want to find out about or discuss test results
You think you need a referral for home nursing care

Timing is everything

Call in the morning and ask the secretary when the best time is to reach the doctor, then call back at that time.
Leave a message with the secretary in the morning for the doctor to return your call. Provide the secretary or answering service with all numbers where you can be reached at certain times, and make sure you are there at those times. This includes home, work, car phone, beeper or cellular phone.
Some doctors have specific hours when they take calls. Find out when this is, and call during those times.

Other options:

If you have basic questions, and have access to e-mail, ask if you can send the doctor an e-mail.
Write down your questions and concerns and ask the doctor at the patient's next appointment.
See if you can get answers to your questions through other means, such as books, pamphlets, or the Internet.

Tips for good communication with health care professionals

Be prepared before calling.
Write down your questions.
Know exactly what information you need to know and why.
Make sure that your questions are clear and specific.
Be concise and stick to the issues.
If you don't understand something, don't be embarrassed to ask for a second explanation.
Repeat what was said to make sure that you understand what he/she told you.
Take notes or tape record conversations with your appointments so that you remember what was said.

Members Of The Health Care Team:

Attending Physician (MD, DO)

The primary doctor who supervises or coordinates the patient's care.

Fellow (MD, DO)

A doctor who has finished residency training, but is continuing training in a subspecialty.

Resident (MD, DO)

A doctor who is training in a specialized area of medicine for 3 to 5 years.

Medical Student

An individual who is still in the process of completing 4 years of medical school to become a doctor.

Physician Assistant (PA)

A professional with special training that allows him/her to assist the doctor by performing medical procedures, ordering medications and tests, and communicating with patients.

Registered Nurse (RN)

A member of the health care team who performs clinical procedures, such as wound dressings and injections, administering medications and treatments, and teaching patients and caregivers how to continue medical care at home.

Nurse Practitioner (RN, NP)

A nurse with 2 to 4 more years of education and training than an RN, which enables him/her to diagnose complaints, order tests, plan treatments, and prescribe medications (in some states).

Social Worker (MSW, CSW, ACSW)

A member of the health care team who is trained to assess patient/caregiver needs and resources, produce a care plan, give guidance, help coordinate services, and provide counseling.

Physical Therapist (PT)

An individual who is licensed by the state and is educated in identifying, preventing, and correcting problems with the muscles, bones, and nerves by physically manipulating affected areas.

Occupational Therapist (OT)

An individual who is educated in helping patients retrain their bodies or minds, and modify living/working arrangements to perform tasks in new ways when recovering from an injury or illness.

Psychologist (PhD)

An individual with specialized training in the psychological, emotional, and behavioral aspects of illness and patient care.


An individual who is trained to provide religious and/or spiritual support to patients, their families and their loved ones.

Patient Representative/Advocate

A staff member of the hospital who tries to resolve patient complaints about the quality of hospital care, or hospital policies and procedures.

Hospital Administrator

A staff member of the hospital who knows the hospital policies and standards, and resolves financial, operational, and personnel issues.


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