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Learn to Speak Doctor

My husband and I were waiting for the train to Berlin’s central station when a group of young Asians exited the escalator onto the platform. They were obviously a little lost, looking at signs and comparing them to their guidebooks and tickets. Finally, one of the young women approached me and said, “S’il vous plaît, parlez vous français?” (“Please, do you speak French?)

I smiled, shook my head and said, “Non, américain. Je parle anglais et un peu allemand.” (No, American. I speak English and a little German.)

The woman waved her friends over. Apparently one of the others spoke a little English. They were trying to figure out if they were in the right place to catch their train. Between broken English, pointing at the departure signs and guidebooks, we were able to not only get them to the right platform but to help them figure out how to better navigate the system.

The importance of learning a few words in another language

I’ve been extremely lucky to visit several foreign countries (often on my own) and one of the most helpful things I’ve found is to learn a few words in the local language before I arrive. This not only helps me get around, it seems to make the natives more friendly if you need help.

A doctors office can often feel like a foreign place

To me, a doctor’s office is a lot like going to London. Everything is very familiar, but at the same time, everything is also just a little strange. For instance, in London, a hamburger is basically a hamburger. But for a side, you might be given the choice of crisps, chips, wedges, or a rocket salad. Translated into “American”, the choices are potato chips, regular-cut fries, wedge-cut fries, or an arugula salad.

Ordering lunch is one thing, but when you’re discussing treatment options and goals for a chronic illness, it’s critical that you and your doctor understand each other clearly.

Misunderstandings between patients and their doctors

Fellow contributor (and really great guy), Rick Phillips, posted an article about remission (https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/living/sustained-remission/). One of his key points is the major disagreement among patients (and their doctors) as to the definition of remission. I know many patients think of remission as basically “cured” – where there is no disease and they don’t have to take any treatments.  Many doctors, on the other hand, consider remission as low or no disease activity shown on lab reports and exams – usually because of a continuing treatment plan.

Using “doctor-language”

One of the most useful “doctor-language” phrases I’ve learned to say is, “When you say X, what I understand is Y. Is that correct?” This gives you and your doctor the chance to make sure you understand the discussion. (By the way, I’ve learned this works in “husband-speak” as well.)

Tips on how to better communicate with your doctor

We speak to doctors from a patient’s perspective, but they translate what we say into clinical or treatment terms. Often it helps to give them some guidance to what we really mean.

Learn how to steer the conversation

If I tell my doctor that I’m having more trouble going upstairs than I used to, she’s no doubt thinking more joint erosion and perhaps a change in treatment plan. To make sure we’re communicating, I’ll add a comment about perhaps physical therapy being helpful. This tells her I don’t think we need to change my treatment, but I do need some additional help.

Learn the lingo

It is important to learn key terms to understand what’s going on and how to work with your doctors to find the best options for treatment. This should include a basic understanding of the treatment options (NSAIDs, DMARDs, and biologics) as well as the various blood tests (such as CRP, ANA, and sed rate) and exam scores (such as DAS28). If you don’t understand these terms, then be sure and ask your doctor what they mean when they discuss them in the exam room. Thankfully, there are a lot of online resources (including this site) that can also give you reliable information (in patient-speak).

If you lose your way, ask someone local

I do pretty well traveling overseas. There are times, however, when I need a bit of help – usually when I’m trying to find someplace or am in a store looking for something. I can usually find a helpful local who will point the way for me.

RA is like that. Sometimes you lose your way. That’s why it’s great to connect to the nation of RA locals on sites like this one. There is no doubt a patient or staff member who has experience with what you need or knows a great resource to find information.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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