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Talking With Doctors

Use these 6 tips to effectively manage your loved one's medical care

As a caregiver for your parent or loved ones, one of your most important challenges is becoming an effective advocate with their doctors and medical team. Effective communication between the caregiver and the health care team will ensure that the right information is shared and that good care is delivered promptly.

See also: Share your caregiving tips and experiences.

AARP tips how to be a better advocate for your parent's doctor- an elder man on an examining table while a doctor examines him

An effective advocate establishes a positive relationship with their loved one's entire medical team. — Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Here are six ways to effectively communicate with your parent or loved one’s doctors:

1. Designate one family member as a point of contact. Imagine how confusing and frustrating it would be if three people were bombarding you with different versions of the same story. That’s how a doctor might feel if various family members all try to communicate at once. The truth is doctors simply don’t have the time to deal with multiple contacts or to become involved in family squabbles.

Figure out one point person who will speak for the family and possess the legal authority to consult with the doctor and make medical decisions with a medical power of attorney. Find out how the doctor likes to be contacted — by phone message or email — and what time of day is best. If you leave a message with doctor and want to be called back, minimize telephone tag: Make sure you say the best time to reach you.

2. Get to know the doctor, nurses and social workers. Establish a positive relationship with your loved one’s entire health care team. It may be a cliché, but it is true that it’s easier to attract bees with honey than with vinegar. Make it your business to be at every doctor’s appointment. Also, make sure that each doctor treating your parent knows what every other doctor treating him or her is doing, and be sure that all doctors have copies of current laboratory and x-ray reports.

3. Obtain an Advance Health Care Directive and HIPAA Agreement. It’s important to have an advance directive, which gives instructions for your parent’s care if they are unable to do so. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects the privacy of patients. A patient must sign the HIPAA document when admitted to a hospital or visiting a doctor. Make sure your parent or loved one’s paperwork designates the caregiver as a person who can receive medical information about the patient. Otherwise, the doctor can discuss treatment options and other issues only with the patient, and the caregiver is restricted from getting the information needed to make prudent decisions.

4. Ask direct questions. If you ask general questions, you will get general answers. Don’t ask, “How’s my mother doing?” or “How long does she have to live?” Instead, ask specific questions aimed at specific concerns. For example: “She’s been having diarrhea. Could it be caused by her medicine? Should we change her diet?”

5. Keep an updated list of medications. Keeping track of medications — when and how often they should be taken and what they are taken for — can be confusing, even for the most organized caregiver. Refresh your parent’s medicine list frequently, and include any over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements. If possible, keep the list of medicines on a spreadsheet that notes daily doses; this will make it easier for medical professionals to review them. If your parent is mobile, he or she should carry this list in a wallet.

6. Cut costs on medications. It’s no secret that prescription drugs can be expensive, but there are often alternatives that will save you money. Ask the doctor if there are generics available for your parent’s prescriptions and work with the doctor on finding an appropriate, less expensive medication if one is available. Check out AARP’s drug savings tool and the doughnut hole calculator. 

You may also like: 10 ways to deal with caregiver stress. »

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