Medical Technology

Understanding Your Doctor Isn't Always Easy — Or Your Fault

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are not confident that they understood their doctor’s recommendations and the health information they discussed with their doctor after a visit, according to a new survey.

Confusion over health information and doctor advice is even higher among people who care for patients than among those who don’t provide care to their loved ones, the nationally representative survey from the AHIMA Foundation found.

The survey also shows that 80% of Americans — and an even higher portion of caregivers — are likely to research medical recommendations online after a doctor’s visit. But 1 in 4 people don’t know how to access their own medical records or find it difficult to do so.

The findings reflect the same low level of health literacy in the U.S. population that earlier surveys did. The results also indicate that little has changed since the Department of Health and Human Services released a National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy in 2010.

That plan emphasized the need to develop and share accurate health information that helps people make decisions; to promote changes in the health care system that improve health information, communication, informed decision-making, and access to health services; and to increase the sharing and use of evidence-based health literacy practices.

According to the AHIMA Foundation report, 62% of Americans are not sure they understand their doctor’s advice and the health information discussed during a visit. Twenty-four percent say they don’t comprehend any of it, and 31% can’t remember what was said during the visit. Fifteen percent of those surveyed said they were more confused about their health than they were before the encounter with their doctor.

Caregivers Have Special Issues

Forty-three percent of Americans are caregivers, the report notes, and 91% of those play an active role in managing someone else’s health. Millennials (65%) and Gen Xers (50%) are significantly more likely than Gen Zers (39%) and Boomers (20%) to be a caregiver.

Most caregivers have concerns about their loved ones’ ability to manage their own health. Most of them believe that doctors provide enough information, but 38% don’t believe a doctor can communicate effectively with the patient if the caregiver is not present.

Forty-three percent of caretakers don’t think their loved ones can understand medical information on their own. On the other hand, caregivers are more likely than people who don’t provide care to say the doctor confused them and to research the doctor’s advice after an appointment.

For many patients and caregivers, communications break down when they are with their health care provider. Twenty-two percent of Americans say they do not feel comfortable asking their doctor certain health questions. This inability to have a satisfactory dialogue with their doctor means that many patients leave their appointments without getting clear answers to their questions (24%) or without having an opportunity to ask any questions at all (17%).

This is not surprising, considering that a 2018 study found that doctors spend only 11 seconds, on average, listening to patients before interrupting them.

Depending on the Internet

Overall, the AHIMA survey found, 42% of Americans research their doctor’s recommendations after an appointment. A higher percentage of caregivers than non-caregiver peers do so (47% vs. 38%). Eighty percent of respondents say they are “likely” to research their doctor’s advice online after a visit.

When they have a medical problem or a question about their condition, just as many Americans (59%) turn to the internet for an answer as contact their doctor directly, the survey found. Twenty-nine percent of the respondents consult friends, family, or colleagues; 23% look up medical records if they’re easily accessible; 19% ask pharmacists for advice; and 6% call an unspecified 800 number.

Americans feel secure in the health information they find on the internet. Among those who go online to look up information, 86% are confident that it is credible. And 42% report feeling relieved that they can find a lot of information about their health concerns. Respondents also say that the information they gather allows them to feel more confident in their doctor’s recommendations (35%) and that they feel better after having learned more on the internet than their doctor had told them (39%). Men are more likely than women to say that their confidence in their doctor’s recommendations increased after doing online research (40% vs. 30%).

Access to Health Records

Access to medical records would help people better understand their condition or diagnosis. But nearly half of Americans (48%) admit they don’t usually review their medical records until long after an appointment, and 52% say they rarely access their records at all.

One in 4 Americans say that they don’t know where to go to access their health information or that they didn’t find the process easy. More than half of those who have never had to find their records think the process would be difficult if they had to try.

Eighty-one percent of Americans use an online platform or portal to access their medical records or health information. Two-thirds of Americans who use an online portal trust that their medical information is kept safe and not shared with other people or organizations.

Four in five respondents agree that if they had access to all of their health information, including medical records, recommendations, conditions, and test results, they’d see an improvement in their health management. Fifty-nine percent of them believe they’d also be more confident about understanding their health, and 47% say they’d have greater trust in their doctor’s recommendations. Higher percentages of caregivers than non-caregivers say the same.

Younger people, those with a high school degree or less, and those who earn less than $50,000 are less likely than older, better educated, and more affluent people to understand their doctor’s health information and to ask questions of their providers.

People of color struggle with their relationships with doctors, are less satisfied than white people with the information they receive during visits, and are more likely than white peers to feel that if they had access to all their health information, they’d manage their health better and be more confident in their doctors’ recommendations, the survey found.


AHIMA Foundation: “Understanding, Access and Use of Health Information in America.”

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Health Literacy.” “National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy.”

Springer: “Wait, just a second, is your doctor listening?”

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