It may not always be easy to open up to your health professionals. You may feel you are taking up too much of their time or that you have bent their ear once too often. Regardless of how busy they are, doctors, oncologists, and other health professionals would rather have too much information from you than not enough.

Research consistently shows that good communication between patients and their health care teams not only improves patient satisfaction with care, but also improves their quality of care.

What may help

Ask questions

It is important that you understand the information given to you by your health care team. It may help to write down your questions so you do not forget to ask them. Don’t be afraid to ask what you might think are “dumb” questions – they are often the best ones. You do not want your health care team to make incorrect assumptions about what you know because you are not communicating openly with them.

Take notes of the answers to your questions, especially if it is detailed information. If you are feeling emotional, shell-shocked or overwhelmed or if you did not understand what your doctor said, ask them to repeat or write down for you some key words that will help you to remember what was discussed in case you need it. Your doctor may also be happy for you to tape your discussions. Patients often report finding such tapes very helpful to listen to again after the consultation and also help their family to better understand what is going on.

Know who to contact

People with advanced cancer and their carers often say they don’t feel comfortable calling their doctor with questions between visits, or that they are not sure their doctor is the person they should be asking.

During a consultation, ask your doctor who you should contact regarding specific matters, such as mobility aids, respite care or emotional support. They may also be able to tell you who to call for after hours help.


For effective communication with your health care team:

  • Be prepared with a list of questions, or write them down as you think of them during the visit.
  • Some people say they often do not know which questions to ask
  • Use these web pages as a guide to help you identify areas that you may want to know more about.
  • Book a longer consultation if you know you have a lot to talk about. That will help you and your doctor to feel less rushed.
  • Take along a friend or family member to help you absorb the information and ask the necessary questions.
  • Take notes and ask for clarifications, in plain English, of anything you don't understand.

For more information

  • Palliative Care Australia has a free booklet Asking Questions Can Help: An Aid for People Seeing the Palliative Care Team lists questions you may like to ask your doctor. Phone (02) 6232 0700.
  • The Cancer Institute NSW has brochures about asking questions of your haematologist, medical oncologist and surgeon.

Last updated 30 August 2015