September 23, 2019/Primary Care

Why We Forget What the Doctor Told Us (and What To Do About It)

Tips to help you get the most from your visit

a couple listening to the doctor's instructions

Has your mind ever gone blank after leaving your doctor’s office? You may be trying to remember the specific instructions or the answers to your “what if questions”: “What if I don’t feel better after a couple of days?” “What if I miss a dose of my medication?” “What if I feel worse in the middle of the night?”


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Nine out of 10 Americans don’t fully understand or remember what to do after a visit with their doctor. Four out of 10 individuals don’t fully understand how to take their medication correctly or care for themselves after leaving the hospital.

This has nothing to do with your level of education or intelligence. Medical terminology is a foreign language to most of us. Even those in the healthcare field may not fully process what they hear when they have a health crisis. Being in pain, having surgery and experiencing certain medication side effects can add to the confusion.

“Stress hinders our ability to listen, to process what we hear and to recall it. Research has shown us that only 50% of the instructions and information provided to patients is accurate and only half of that information is remembered correctly,” says Mary Beth Modic, DNP, APRN-CNS, CDE, a clinical nurse specialist in the Office of Advanced Practice.

Getting clarity

“Clear communication is one of the most powerful tools you can use to stay healthy,” says Modic. “How well you understand what you and your doctor have discussed is called ‘health literacy’. It is the best predictor of how prepared you feel to manage your illness or recovery at home.”

Each year, thousands of Americans are injured or die because of unclear communication (in conversation or in writing) about their care — or because they don’t understand the information or its importance.

While hospitals like Cleveland Clinic make every effort to ensure clear communication from healthcare providers, patients play a role in good communication, too.

Listen to your gut

Start by trusting your instincts, and be proactive. “If you’re confused or if something just doesn’t feel right, don’t be embarrassed to ask questions or to voice your concerns,” says Modic.

Remember that the vast majority of patients have been in your shoes. The Joint Commission, an independent and non-profit organization that visits healthcare organizations to assist them in continuously improving their delivery of high quality and safe care, promotes a SPEAK UPTM campaign that provides specific questions patients can use to get the necessary information they want and need when visiting their doctor.

Here are six tips to keep in mind to ensure safe care for you and your loved ones:

1. Speak up, and be heard.

If you have new information (even a minor change in symptoms), tell your doctor. “Your doctor wants to make sure that they address your concerns,” says Modic. “And if you don’t understand, say so. If your doctor appears busy, say: ‘I’m trying to understand, but I feel rushed.’” Your doctor wants to make sure that you comprehend the instructions and recommendations so you will recover more quickly.


2. Don’t trust your memory. Write it down.

Before your doctor’s appointment, write down your questions and concerns, leaving space for the answers. At the office, write down your doctor’s answers. If it will help, ask for a printed diagram or ask the doctor to show you on the computer the part of the body they’re describing. Your doctor will provide you with a printed summary of what was discussed, activities you should perform to prevent complications, a list of worsening symptoms that would require a call to the office or trip to the emergency room and your list of medications. If the summary isn’t offered to you, ask for it.

3. Be truthful.

People often withhold information from their doctor because they worry that they may be judged. You may feel embarrassed to share symptoms or information such as smoking habits, drug or alcohol use, sexual dysfunction or leakage of your bowel or bladder. Valuable time, money and resources may be spent to look for causes for your symptoms. Withholding the truth can affect the accuracy of the diagnosis or delay treatment for a treatable condition. Your doctor wants to help you, not judge you.

4. Bring a second set of ears.

Ask a loved one or trusted friend to go with you to your appointment, to make sure you understand what is being discussed and what activities you need to do to manage your condition. They can advocate for you if you are feeling overwhelmed with all of the information that is being given or if you are having difficulty asking follow-up questions.

Make sure you, or your loved one, understand what you’re supposed to do. Your doctor may ask you for a verbal confirmation of what took place during the visit by asking “I want to make sure that I explained things clearly to you, so can you tell me what you and I discussed today?” If there is a concern, your doctor can offer further instruction in a more personalized manner.

5. Follow directions.

Many people don’t realize how important it is to take medication exactly as prescribed and to follow all the recommendations for their care. If you have questions or believe that you cannot afford the new medication that is prescribed, tell your doctor. Research has suggested that a third of patients never get their prescriptions filled. To paraphrase the esteemed U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Everett Koop, “Medications don’t work in patients who don’t take them.”

6. Manage your medications.

To make sure you don’t have any medication mishaps, Modic offers these tips:

  • Learn the names of your medications. Become familiar with the names of your medications and the reasons why you are taking each medication. Bring your medications to your doctor’s appointment.
  • Read labels. Before you leave the pharmacy, make sure it’s your name on the prescription, and that the drug name and dosage are correct. Human and computer errors can happen, especially if different medications sound or look alike.
  • Be precise. Know how to take your medicine. For example, a plastic dropper (syringe) is safer than a teaspoon for precisely measuring liquid medicine. Some medications require learning special skills such as giving yourself an injection, using an inhaler or applying a medicated patch. When receiving instruction, be sure to ask that the doctor, nurse or pharmacist watch you practice and give you feedback about your technique.
  • Make a list. Carry the medication list in your purse or wallet in case of an accident. Give a copy of your medication list to your loved ones so in case of an emergency they can share it with other healthcare providers. Include over-the-counter medicines as well as supplements on the list.
  • Never double up. Don’t continue taking your old medication if a new medication is supposed to replace it, even if the old medication was expensive! Talk to your pharmacist about any concerns you have with a new medication.
  • Ask for help with costs. If you can’t afford your medication, tell your doctor about your concerns. There are medication assistance programs for which you may qualify and in which you can be enrolled.


Remember: Your doctor is an expert on healthcare. You’re the expert on you.

Using these communication tips, Modic says, can help you partners with your doctor to become a healthier you.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Male sitting on couch with head in hand, looking forlorn
May 23, 2024/Men's Health
Men’s Mental Health: 11 Tips for Taking Care of Your Whole Self

Learn to build a strong support system, identify unhealthy coping mechanisms and tend to your physical health

Hand holding packet of birth control pills in front of feet on a scale
April 23, 2024/Women's Health
Birth Control and Weight Gain: What the Science Says

Despite popular opinion, scientific research shows that most birth control methods don’t contribute to weight gain

Person on scale, questioning muscle weight vs. fat weight
April 12, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
The Difference Between Muscle Weight vs. Fat Weight

Both are needed for a healthy body

Plate full of colorful and healthy fruits, veggies and grains
April 8, 2024/Women's Health
6 Ways To Boost Breast Health

Taking precautions like eating healthy, stopping smoking and getting regular screenings can help protect against breast cancer

Healthcare provider using a shockwave therapy machine
Can Shockwave Therapy Treat Erectile Dysfunction?

Early results show the procedure may help resolve mild to moderate ED

Female struggling to push a large rock up a hill
March 21, 2024/Weight Loss
Why It Really Is Harder for Women To Lose Weight (and What To Do About It)

Genetics, metabolism and hormonal fluctuations can all make weight loss more difficult

Female patient at doctor office discussing concerns and issues
March 12, 2024/Women's Health
Bleeding Between Periods? How To Tell if It’s a Problem

Reasons for spotting can include menopause, uterine fibroids, PCOS and birth control

person leaning over sink brushing teeth
March 7, 2024/Oral Health
What Do Your Hormones Have To Do With Your Oral Health?

Estrogen and progesterone changes throughout the month — and throughout your life — can make you more prone to dental health concerns

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey