How to communicate with your medical provider

Communication skills are crucial for Military Service Members, especially when it comes to giving and carrying out orders. An often overlooked area, though, is how you communicate with your doctor, nurse, medic/corpsman, physical therapist, athletic trainer, or other medical provider. The more details you can give, the better. Share your specific concerns to help your provider figure out what the issue is and provide the best treatment.

What are your symptoms or concerns?

Before your visit, write down your symptoms and how long they’ve been bothering you. Be thorough. Even if it seems unrelated, it still might be relevant. Military medical is notorious for long wait times before you can get in to see a provider. Though it can be frustrating and inconvenient, use the time to your benefit. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and write it down, so you can better inform your provider.

General medical

  • What’s your chief complaint?
    • Why did you make the appointment?
  • What are your symptoms?
    • Coughing
    • Sneezing and runny nose
    • Headache
    • Rash
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle or joint aches
    • Fever (temperature of 101.5℉ or higher)
  • When did your symptoms start?
  • Have your symptoms changed? If so, how? Did they go away after a few days and then come back with a vengeance?
    • This is an important thing to pay attention to because it’s typical of bacterial infections such as an upper-respiratory infection. Symptoms that present like this can respond well to antibiotics. If your symptoms slowly improve (and don’t get worse), that might indicate a viral infection such as a head cold. Since viral infections don’t respond to antibiotics, your doctor likely won’t prescribe them.
  • Have you taken any medication?
    • What did you take?
    • When did you start?
    • How often?
    • Did it help?


Injuries are the leading cause of lost duty time. The sooner you can report an injury and get it treated, the faster it will heal—and it’s less likely you’ll be put on profile. Since they learn about the entire body in medical school, primary care providers often lack the skills to accurately diagnose and treat musculoskeletal injuries compared to sports medicine physicians, athletic trainers, and physical therapists who specifically receive rigorous musculoskeletal training. Communicating clearly and effectively will help your provider—no matter their background—diagnose you and come up with a plan.

  • Where does it hurt?
    • Being able to answer “with one finger in one spot, point to where it hurts the most” will really help your provider figure out what’s injured. Sometimes you can’t, and that’s okay. But before you go in, be able to point out your pain more than “my leg hurts.”
  • How long has it been hurting?
    • Has the pain improved, worsened, or stayed the same since it started?
    • Has the pain moved or spread?
  • What were you doing when the pain started?
    • Did it come on suddenly like rolling your ankle?
      • If so, did you hear or feel any snaps, cracks, or pops?
    • Or did it come on slowly? Many times, you can't pinpoint a specific thing that caused your pain. It just came on slowly and then one day hurt a lot. This is actually really common for "overuse" or "chronic" injuries. If your pain comes on like this, really try to remember how it felt over time, how long it's been hurting, did it feel better then get worse, etc.
  • How does it hurt?
    • Does it feel like something is tearing every time it hurts, or do you feel sharp, stabbing pain? If you’re experiencing back or leg pain, does it feel like fire or electricity running down your leg?
    • Do you have any tingling or numbness?
  • Is there a certain time or activity that makes it hurt?
    • This can often point to textbook cases of what your injury might be, making it easy for your provider to diagnose you.
    • Maybe your heel kills first thing in the morning. That first step out of bed is terrible, but then as the day goes on, the pain goes away. The next day, same thing happens again.
    • Your knees tend to ache all day. Going upstairs is fine, but when you go downstairs, the pain feels worse.
  • Have you done anything for it?
    • Have you taken any medication?
    • Do any type of home rehab?
    • Stop any activities that made it worse?

What do you want to get out of the appointment?

Knowing what to expect from the appointment will help medical work with you on a course of action. It’s crucial to communicate your expectations. If you don’t, you might leave disappointed because you didn’t get what you came in for and without explanation why.

Try to remember what you want might not be necessary or even the best thing for you. For example, if you come in with low back pain and want an X-Ray or MRI, you won’t necessarily leave with a referral for one. In most cases, imaging for low back pain isn’t needed because it won’t show the cause of your pain, and it won’t improve your treatment outcomes. However, communicating your wants and expectations to your provider will allow them the chance to explain why it might not be needed or practical. Also, your provider can better educate you on your condition because knowledge is power when it comes to managing injuries or illness.

Profile/limited duty chits

The U.S. Army calls it being on “profile,” and other services refer to it as light or limited duty (LIMDU). The fact is nobody wants a chit restricting them. There’s often a stigma around reporting to medical because some think it makes you appear weak, soft, or not a team player. Whether the stigma is real or not in your unit, delaying treatment can end up costing you more time on LIMDU than if you had reported it sooner. If you honestly think you don’t need to be restricted for what you’re reporting to medical, say so! It’s important to be truthful with yourself: Try to put aside your drive to keep working and assess how you really feel.

Communicating your thoughts on a profile/LIMDU might help you and your provider work out a course of action that still allows full work status, sometimes even with some minor job modifications that will keep you on full active status. However, keep in mind there are times when a chit is unavoidable, and it might be necessary for your well-being or your teammates’ safety. If it’s one of those times, remember it’s okay to take a knee once in a while to keep yourself at peak performance.

Bottom line

Plan ahead before visiting military medical. Know what you want to say and what you want to get out of your appointment before you go. Write any issues down, so you don’t forget something important. In the end, the better you communicate your symptoms to your medical provider, the more effective they’ll be in helping you get better.

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Cuppett, M., & Walsh, K. M. (2012). The Medical Examination in General Medical Conditions in the Athlete (pp. 17–34). St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc.

Monrad, S. U., Zeller, J. L., Craig, C. L., & DiPonio, L. A. (2011). Musculoskeletal education in US medical schools: Lessons from the past and suggestions for the future. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, 4(3), 91–98. doi:10.1007/s12178-011-9083-x

Prentice, W. E. (2010). Arnheim's Principles of Athletic Training: A Competency-Based Approach (14th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.