If a patient wants to tape the visit

August 19, 2005

Some doctors say it's a good idea; some hate it. We offer advice from our experts.

When her husband first developed symptoms of what turned out to be cancer, Helen accompanied him to his FP, then to a gastroenterologist, and eventually to an oncologist. After each visit, however, she and her husband felt increasingly overwhelmed by the complicated and often conflicting information they received.

"I tried to listen carefully," Helen recalls, "but we just couldn't remember everything. I was upset and frightened, so I wasn't always thinking clearly. But I felt I had to understand this important information so that I could explain to our kids what was happening.

"I realized I needed some way to keep track of what we were being told at each visit, and what the test results meant. My daughter suggested bringing along a tape recorder, so we asked the oncologist if that was okay with him. I felt uncomfortable about asking, but he had no problem with it. The surgeon who did the biopsy was okay with it, too.

Other patients and their families are taping doctors' visits, too. Some would like to, but are nervous about asking. But is it a good idea to allow patients to record their visits? Are there any drawbacks?

To answer those questions, we turned to our editorial consultants for their opinions. We also found out what your colleagues think by polling our "kitchen cabinet," an informal sounding board of readers who've volunteered to be just that. Consultants and physicians expressed strong opinions on the subject-both pro and con. Here's what we learned.

The majority say they'd allow it

The practice management consultants we interviewed generally favor letting patients tape office visits. Jeff Denning, of Practice Performance Group in La Jolla, CA, assumes most doctors would fear taping as a legal threat, but he doesn't. "My advice would be to welcome it as an attempt at more complete communication."

"I encourage it," says Keith Borglum, with Professional Management and Marketing in Santa Rosa, CA, "because patients tend to remember little of what's spoken to them. A tape lets them review the information later."

Geoff Anders, of The Health Care Group in Plymouth Meeting, PA, agrees: "It's difficult for patients to remember everything the doctor says, let alone relay that information accurately to their families. Replaying the session allows them to get the doctor's recommendations straight, and lets family members participate in care decisions. It should also reduce the number of phone calls from patients who aren't sure what the doctor told them."

Although few of the physicians we polled have actually had a patient show up with a tape recorder, the majority told us they'd permit patients to tape their visits, claiming it would improve comprehension and compliance. "Absolutely!" writes Patti Roy, an FP in Muskegon, MI. "With a tape, there's no misunderstanding later about what was said in the office."

Warren Wolfe, an FP in Fredericksburg VA, agrees: "I don't see anything wrong with it, especially for elderly patients who seem to forget my instructions, or lose the notes I write for them." Alberto Kriger, a pediatrician in Pembroke Pines, FL, writes: "Many times, I wish parents would bring a tape recorder. It would ensure that they walk out with accurate instructions, and I wouldn't have to call the other parent to repeat them."