8 tips for talking about uncomfortable topics with a doctor

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Talking about sensitive or embarrassing symptoms with a doctor can be daunting. Here’s how to prepare and tackle any awkwardness so you can get the help you need from your appointment

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The thought of speaking to a doctor about sensitive issues can make anyone nervous. Whether you’ve noticed unusual body odour, you want to discuss issues around sex or you’ve been feeling low, a doctor is there to help with even the most nerve-wracking symptoms.

‘Opening up can be tough, but living with an issue that’s bothering you is worse,’ says Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP. ‘A doctor is there to listen and address any problem you may have, big or small.’

Remember that doctors aren’t there to pass judgement and no question is out of bounds when it comes to your health. Being honest about your symptoms or how you’re feeling will help the doctor find ways to support you – whether that’s through treatment, medication, therapy or referral to a specialist.

Here are 8 simple tips to help you feel ready to share how you’re feeling.

1. Make notes in advance

Sometimes it’s easier to organise your thoughts before speaking to a doctor, especially if there are a few different things you’d like to discuss.

Writing down your symptoms, experiences or questions before can help you remember important details you might otherwise forget during your appointment. Having notes to refer to can also help to reduce any anxiety. If you’re still feeling nervous, you can also share your notes with your doctor.

2. Try a digital appointment

If you’re experiencing symptoms and worried about discussing them face-to-face, you could try a digital appointment from home as a first port of call. You might find it easier to talk openly in a familiar space where you feel safe.

3. Educate yourself

Some people like to read up on the topic they’re worried about before their appointment. There’s no need to know all the medical terminology, but it can help give you some useful language to describe how you’re feeling.

Searching for symptoms online can be confusing and even frightening, so stick to reputable sources like the NHS or Livi’s medical advice hub, which is reviewed by medical experts.

4. Practise beforehand

If you find yourself feeling self-conscious or struggling to talk about your concerns, try practising at home or in a safe space. Often hearing your words out loud can help you feel more confident.

5. Be as specific as you can

Don’t feel like you need to know exactly what’s going on with your body or the reason why. Just being specific about the timeline and sharing details of your symptoms can help your doctor understand what’s going on.

For example:

  • ‘This past month, there have been a few times when I couldn’t control my bladder’
  • ‘For the past 2 months, I’ve felt a sharp pain when having sex’
  • ‘I’ve lost interest in the things that I used to find fun and I’m struggling to wake up in the morning’

The more information your doctor has, the better equipped they’ll be to help you.

6. Ask questions

Doctor’s appointments can be overwhelming and sometimes a doctor can present a lot of information quite quickly. Remember that it’s okay to ask questions as you need to understand your doctor’s advice.

It’s also okay to ask them to clarify any medical terms you’re not familiar with. Try repeating the information back to them to help you absorb it.

7. Let the doctor know you’re feeling nervous

Sharing that you’re feeling anxious can help the doctor understand that you may need more time to speak about your concern. Simply addressing the awkwardness by getting it out in the open can help reduce those feelings. Some phrases you could try include:

  • ‘This is embarrassing/difficult for me to speak about’
  • ‘I haven’t spoken to anyone about this before’
  • ‘I’m feeling nervous – bear with me while I explain’

8. Remember the appointment is completely confidential

‘We respect our patient’s privacy, and the consultation room – whether digital or in-person – is a place where you can share your problem with the confidence that it will be kept confidential,’ says Dr Saloojee. ‘Our job is to put you at ease and make it a comfortable environment for you to discuss your health problems.’

How do I know when to speak to a doctor?

If you have any symptoms that you’re worried about, it’s usually best to address them with a doctor as soon as possible. Some health issues that are important to address as soon as symptoms appear include:

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP.

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