Work Closely With Your Doctor

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Work Closely With Your Doctor


Good health care doesn't just happen. You have to do your part. Taking an active role in your health care is the best way to make sure you get great care and reduce costs at the same time.

A strong partnership between you and your doctor is key to getting great care and reducing costs. A doctor who not only knows your medical history but understands what's important to you may be the resource you need most when you face a major health care decision.

Find a Doctor Who Will Be a Partner

Your family doctor or a general practitioner who knows and understands your needs can be your most valuable health partner. When you choose a doctor, there are lots of questions to ask, but these three matter the most:

  • Is the doctor well trained and experienced?
  • Will the doctor be available when needed?
  • Will the doctor work in partnership with me?

Training and experience

Family doctors in Canada are usually certified in their field by the College of Family Physicians of Canada. To maintain their certification, doctors must take continuing medical education courses.

Family doctors and general practitioners have broad knowledge about many common medical problems. Some have additional training or experience in particular areas. For example, some family doctors may take a special interest in sports medicine, maternity, or environmental illnesses, to name a few. If you have a particular health concern or interest, it is worth looking into the backgrounds of doctors in your community. You may find this information by asking your friends and family, looking in the phone directory under Physicians and Surgeons, or contacting the College of Family Physicians of Canada. For more information, see the topic Medical Specialists.


Because health problems rarely develop when it's convenient, it helps to have a doctor who can see you when needed. Before you select a doctor, call or visit his or her office. Tell the clinic receptionist that you are looking for a new doctor. Ask these questions:

  • Is the doctor accepting new patients?
  • What are the office hours?
  • If I called right now for a routine visit, how soon could I be seen?
  • How much time is allowed for a routine visit?
  • If I cancel an appointment, will I be charged for it?
  • Will the doctor discuss health problems over the phone or by email?
  • Does the doctor work with nurse practitioners or physician assistants? (These health professionals have special training in managing minor and routine medical problems. They can often see you sooner, take care of minor health problems, and communicate with your regular doctor about your concerns.)
  • Who fills in for the doctor when he or she is not available?
  • What hospitals does the doctor use?
  • Does the doctor go to the hospital?

Partner potential

During your first visit, tell your doctor that you would like to share in making treatment decisions. Pay attention to how you feel during the visit.

  • Does the doctor listen well?
  • Does the doctor speak to you in terms you can understand?
  • Does the doctor spend enough time with you?
  • Do you think you could build a good working relationship with the doctor?

If the answers are no, look for another doctor. It may take more than one visit for you to decide whether you will be able to work with a doctor.

Is it time for a change?

If you are unhappy with how your doctor treats you, it may be time for a change. Before you start looking for a new doctor, talk with your current doctor about how you would like to be treated. Your doctor will probably be pleased to work with you as a partner if you tell him or her that's what you want. If you don't make your wishes known, your doctor may think that you, like many people, want him or her to do all the work.

Learn All You Can From Your Doctor

  1. Use your doctor as a teacher and coach. Some patients just want their doctors to tell them what to do. They don't want to know the whys and the hows. Some of the time, that's fine. But if you really want to get care that best meets your needs, be a patient and a student.
    • Don't just ask your doctor what you should do. Ask why. Your doctor can help you understand your care.
    • Always ask to see if you have options. Which options seem best for you? What are their pros and cons? What effects might your choice have in the short term and over the long term?
    • Benefit from your doctor's experience with other patients. Even though every patient's situation is different, your doctor has probably helped other patients work through the same questions and decisions that you have to deal with. Some doctors may be better teachers and coaches than others, but they really do want to help you get the answers you need.
  2. Prepare for every doctor visit. This helps your doctor give you better care and helps both of you make the most of the visit.
    • Be ready to say what your main symptoms are, when they started, and what you have done to treat them so far. It may help to write these things down before your doctor visit.
    • Write down the three questions that you most want to have answered. If the doctor does not bring them up, don't be afraid to ask.
    • Bring a list of all the medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements that you are taking.
    • Bring copies of recent test results if the tests were done by a different doctor.
  3. Take an active role in every visit or call.
    • Pay attention. Ask questions if you don't understand something.
    • Write down the diagnosis, the treatment plan, and any guidelines for self-care and follow-up visits or calls.
    • Be honest and direct about what you do or do not plan to do.
  4. Learn all you can about your health problem. Good information—whether you get it from your doctor, the library, or a trusted website—is a powerful tool for helping you make wise health decisions. If you have a complicated problem or want to know more about your health options:
    • Start by asking your doctor if he or she has information about your problem that you could take home. Some doctors offer DVDs, CDs, brochures, or reprints from medical journals.
    • If you need to make a decision about a treatment, find out how quickly you need to decide. You may have a few days, weeks, or months to explore your options.
    • If your health plan has an advice line, call and ask if they can help you get more information.
    • If you use the Internet to find health information, start by searching sources such as your provincial website and Health Canada, or a national organization that represents a particular disease, like the Canadian Diabetes Association or the Canadian Cancer Society. These sources present information that is based on the analysis of a large body of medical evidence.
    • If you have questions or concerns about the information you find, discuss them with your doctor.

Other Places To Get Help


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Consumers & Patients
540 Gaither Road
Suite 2000
Rockville, MD 20850
Phone: (301) 427-1364
Web Address:

This Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) website has evidence-based tips on staying healthy, choosing quality care, getting safe care, understanding diseases, comparing medical treatments, and more. AHRQ is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It supports research that will help people make more informed decisions and improve the quality of health care services.

National Institutes of Health: Clear Communication
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892
Phone: (301) 496-4000
TDD: (301) 402-9612
Web Address:

This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website offers tips for how to partner with your doctor.

National Patient Safety Foundation
268 Summer Street, 6th Floor
Boston, MA  02210
Phone: (617) 391-9900
Fax: (617) 391-9999
Web Address:

The National Patient Safety Foundation (U.S.) is an organization dedicated to improving the safety of patients. The foundation works to raise public awareness about patient safety and is a resource for people and organizations who are concerned about the safety of patients.


Other Works Consulted

  • Street RL Jr, et al. (2009). How does communication heal? Pathways linking clinician-patient communication to health outcomes. Patient Education and Counseling, 74(3): 295–301.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Last Revised June 13, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.