“...About 75 percent of all diagnoses in primary care are based on the history. So just being skilled in taking a history, being good at the interview, being human enough to let someone tell what really matters to them is an essential part of making a diagnosis.”

— Arthur Kleinman, MD / Harvard Medical School

Talking to Your Physician

Talk openly.

Integrative medicine tailors medical treatments to the needs of each individual patient.  What you tell your doctor plays a crucial role in determining a treatment plan that suits your lifestyle, values, concerns, and medical condition(s). And what your doctor tells you about your health and what steps to take to improve it are equally important.


woman talking

It is much easier to make needed changes when you understand the importance of the changes and know how the changes will benefit you. Work with your doctor to understand your treatment plan.  Then set realistic goals and create ways to measure your progress.

The following guidelines, recommended by healthcare experts, can help your doctor get the information he or she needs to work with youand can help you to be an active participant in your healthcare.

  • Speak openly with your physician and other healthcare providers about your health concerns, symptoms, and any issue that may impact on your health, such as emotional problems, the stresses in your life, your lifestyle and health habits, including your diet, how often you exercise, and how you sleep. Include information that might be helpful, even if you find it embarrassing to talk about, such as sexual or substance abuse issues.
  • Bring a list of medicines that you are taking, including the dosages. Be sure to include herbal medicines and dietary supplements.
  • Tell your doctor about any therapies you use, including complementary and alternative ones.

Ask questions and take notes.


note taking

Write down what questions you want to ask your doctor before the appointment.  If your doctor recommends lifestyle changes such as losing weight or exercising more, ask for specific guidelines. Experts recommend writing out your personal or family health history and a list of current symptoms and concerns.  In addition, you should:

  • Take notes and/or ask a friend to accompany you to the doctor's office to listen and record information.
  • If tests have been ordered or taken during the appointment, make sure you understand the reason for the tests and ask when you will receive the results.
  • If the doctor recommends additional treatments, such as new medications or supplements, ask for written instructions about their use.
  • Find out how to get answers to any additional questions you may have after the appointment.

Ask about the benefits and risks of any recommended treatment.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) advises, when a treatment recommendation has been made, ask:



  • What benefits can I expect from this therapy?
  • What are the risks associated with this therapy?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the risks for my disease or condition?
  • What side effects can be expected?
  • Will the therapy interfere with any of my daily activities?
  • How long will I need to undergo treatment? How often will my progress or plan of treatment be assessed?
  • Will I need to buy any equipment or supplies?
  • Do you have scientific articles or references about using the treatment for my condition?
  • Could the therapy interact with conventional treatments?
  • Are there any conditions for which this treatment should not be used?    

NCCAM offers more information here.



Become an informed participant.

The better informed you are, the better choices you will make, so ask about additional resources such as books, brochures, audio and videotapes, Web sites and support groups that might be helpful to you.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) was created by Congress to meet the information needs of patients and clinicians, health system leaders, and policymakers so that everyone involved can make more informed healthcare decisions.  AHRQ offers its guidelines here.

AHRQ also provides additional advice on being an active participant in your own healthcare here.

The University of Minnesota's Center for Healing and Spirituality has created an online patient education program, Taking Charge of Your Health: Navigating the Health Care System, which includes a module on communicating with your healthcare provider.
For more information, click here.

It is never too late to educate yourself and to become an active participant in your own care.