The average time a doctor will spend listening to you without interrupting is 12 seconds, so you better be quick and coherent in communicating your health problem, says Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency room physician and co-author of the book, "When Doctors Don't Listen."
Wen calls what patients tell their doctors "stories," and she advises patients and their caregivers to practice their story before they are face-to-face with a physician. "If you can't tell a good story, the doctor won't listen," she says. "The onus is on you to get the doctor to listen."
Start by constructing a pitch similar to what businesspeople use when they are trying to persuade investors. Don't describe your symptoms. Just tell the doctor what you are feeling in your own words.
For example, don't say, "I have shortness of breath." Instead, say, "I was walking when I felt pounding in my chest and I couldn't breathe."
"That story tells the doctor what she needs to know," Wen says.
After you figure out your story, practice it. Time yourself and make sure you can say what you want to say in 10 seconds. If possible, get someone else to critique your story and your storytelling style, Wen advises.
If you're a caregiver, help your patient practice, or if they are incapable of talking, practice telling their story for them.
Even people who meet their physicians in the emergency room should hone their stories first, Wen says. "Use your wait time wisely to practice your story."
While this approach to medicine may not sound very warm and fuzzy, patients who follow her advice get better care, including more accurate diagnoses and more sophisticated treatment. Wen says, "This really works."