Does your health care provider understand your pain?

How can you communicate so that your health care provider really understands your needs? Good communication involves both speaking and listening. Some people are great speakers and poor listeners, while others are great listeners and poor speakers. If people don’t both speak and listen, communication will not be successful.

How good communication helps patients

Good communication helps you get the information you need to become actively involved in your medical care. Information is a basic building block to getting the knowledge that gives you the power to prepare for care, to feel more confident, and improve your ability to make good medical decisions.

What health care providers expect from patients

Since communication is a two-way street, patients and providers each have a responsibility to keep the flow of communication clear. Here are common expectations that doctors have of patients with chronic pain:

  • Keep your health care provider informed and do not hide information. Whether you are in pain, not taking your medication regularly, or using alternative treatments, health care providers expect you to be honest when you tell them what is going on. It saves valuable time when your provider doesn’t have to dig for information.

  • Let your provider know if you are having difficulties. Health care providers know that coping with chronic pain can be emotionally challenging. Ask for help. Health care providers can only help you get the support you need if they know there is a problem.

  • Know when to get help. Learn what issues you can and cannot manage on your own. Patients and providers should discuss this early in their relationship.
  • Understand your health insurance coverage. Learn the basic language of the insurance world. Know what types of pain care are covered and what is not covered. Learn when you need prior approval from your insurance company. This helps you communicate with your health care provider and advocate for yourself with your insurer.

  • Teach your health care provider about you. Let your health care providers know who you are as a person. Although medical visits are short, it is important to take the time to let your health care providers learn about you.

Barriers to good patient-health care provider communication

The greatest communication problem is thinking that communication is simple, and does not require much thought or practice. Unfortunately, like any skill, good communication takes practice. Either the speaker or the listener can throw up barriers to communication.

These are three common barriers to good communication:

1. Not being prepared

You may have no control over where and when you get important medical information. You may be so unprepared that you miss the message, or become distracted and lose concentration.

If you feel unprepared for important medical information:

  • Ask for the information to be repeated, or ask for it in writing
  • Ask for a second meeting when you feel more prepared
  • Have a relative or friend help you prepare for the meeting, or go with you
  • Write down your questions ahead of time
  • Focus on what is most important to you right now
  • Think about who you are communicating with, and what communication style works best

2. Sending/receiving an unclear message

Understanding begins with listening carefully and showing this by making eye contact. Communication can break down when one person does not understand the words used by the other person. Health care providers may use technical terms that are unfamiliar to patients. Ask, if you don’t understand something. One way to check whether you understood what you heard is to repeat it back in your own words, and then ask if it is correct.

When you don’t understand:

  • Ask for a clearer explanation
  • Ask for help in learning the medical words that have been used
  • Remember, providers expect these types of questions

3. Misreading body language

Body language, such as gestures, postures, and facial expressions, along with words, is important to good communication. It can be confusing to the listener if someone smiles when delivering bad news, or looks sad when giving good news. This happens more when you communicate with people you don’t know very well. Fatigue and stress can also interfere with the ability to listen, and cause a person to depend more on how something is said, rather than what is said.

To avoid misunderstandings:

  • Be aware of what you are communicating with your body language
  • Learn to recognize how body language influences or interferes with communication
  • Ask directly if you are reading body language correctly


An important foundation of good medical care is the patient-health care provider relationship. Clear communication improves the relationship and the care you receive. Get to know your health care providers and help them get to know you. You will be pleased by how confident you’ll feel when you have a solid relationship with your health care providers.


Patient-Doctor Talk