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4 Smart Ways to Ask Your Doctor Questions

Date: April 1, 2017      Publication: Bottom Line Health      Source:  Susan H. McDaniel, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center      Print:

When you schedule a medical appointment—whether it’s an annual physical or a visit for a specific complaint—you may draw a blank when it comes to asking your doctor questions. Or you could have a few questions in mind that you’d like to ask…or even better, you’ve written them down.

But do you ask the right questions…in the most effective way? In a way that will help you make the best choices for your health—and perhaps even improve your outcomes? What you need to know about this crucial aspect of doctor-patient communication…

ONE-SIDED CONVERSATIONS

Doctors are trained in medical school to listen carefully to patients. But the skill isn’t reinforced as much as it should be during the rest of training. As a result, many doctors forget that early education and end up talking more than listening during appointments.

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As for the patients, no one teaches us how to ask our doctors questions and, as a result, most of us don’t have a lot of strategies to elicit the information we want. Once we’re in a doctor’s office, many of us let the doctor do most of the talking, fail to ask all the questions we may have and then blindly trust whatever the doctor says.

This type of one-sided communication might help a rushed medical practice stick to schedules, but it’s not good for our health. Patients who engage in a give-and-take relationship with their doctors—with space for questions and careful listening—do better overall than those of us who keep our thoughts to ourselves.

Important research: Studies have shown that patients who have good working relationships with their doctors, including healthy communication styles and empathic responses from the clinician, have better outcomes (such as improved blood pressure) than people who do not get this type of care.

YOUR QUESTIONS MATTER

How might these issues play out in your own doctor visits? Let’s say you have limited or no insurance, and your doctor recommends a new medication. Do you simply agree to take it? Or do you ask your doctor—why you need it…what it does…why it’s better than other drug options (or nondrug behavioral options)…and what it costs?

Depending on the condition being treated, the answers to these questions can significantly affect your health. If you feel that you can’t afford an expensive medication, you probably won’t take it. You’d do better asking about cost and telling your doctor that you want a different, less costly drug.

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And if you aren’t sure why your doctor has advised a particular treatment, you’ll be less likely to take it seriously. Studies show that only about half of patients follow directions to the letter (including how one takes medications).

A frightening statistic: About half of patients leave their doctors’ offices without understanding everything they were told. This is partly due to time pressures in busy medical practices, or the unwillingness of some doctors to fully engage with patients. But we as patients share part of the blame. A doctor can’t know what we’re confused about—or what worries us most—unless we speak up.

THE RIGHT WAY TO ASK

The median length of an office visit with a primary care doctor is now down to about 15 minutes—usually less than the time that you spend waiting to see the doctor.

How can you make sure that your questions get answered…without overwhelming the doctor at the same time? Here are four techniques that can make a difference…

• Focus on what really counts. We’ve all been told to write down our questions before seeing a doctor. Plenty of people skip this step, often because they assume they will remember what they want to ask. That’s a mistake.

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Writing down your questions helps because most people get anxious and freeze up when talking about a health concern. Important: Don’t overwhelm your doctor with too many questions. You’ll only get rushed answers, at best. Limit your list to the most important questions…you can save the rest for a follow-up appointment if necessary.

• Use a patient portal in your electronic health record (EHR). Most large health groups now have online patient portals as part of their EHRs. Patients can sign in and see their test results and other medical records. These secure portals usually allow patients to ask questions that they didn’t think about during an office visit or ask for a medication refill. Someone in the office, often a nurse, will typically respond within 24 hours. You can also send questions via the portal prior to an appointment, and the staff will alert the doctor about them prior to your visit.

• Rehearse your questions. This might sound like overkill, but given the rushed pace of the typical office visit, you want to make sure that every word counts—especially if you’re dealing with a serious health issue, such as a pending surgery, a cancer diagnosis, etc.

What helps: Practice your questions with a family member and ask for feedback. Are your questions short and to the point? Do they address your most pressing concerns? Are you spending too much time on minor issues?

• Bring the right person with you. The anxiety of seeing a doctor has a profound effect on most of us—even more so when we’re ill. Studies show that patients immediately forget up to 80% of what’s discussed during a doctor visit and get about half of the remainder wrong.

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Most people know that it’s advisable to bring along a family member or friend to a doctor appointment for this very reason. But not enough people do it—or they bring a person who isn’t that helpful.

If you choose the other person wisely, he/she will be more likely to remember important details, clarify anything that’s unclear and get the information you need to follow your treatment plan. The best person to take with you is someone who won’t get too upset to be helpful and can take notes when you’re with the doctor. Choose someone you respect, so you can ask for this person’s views.

For examples of smart questions to ask during a typical doctor appointment, go to BottomLineInc.com/10questions.

Source: Susan H. McDaniel, PhD, vice chair of the department of family medicine and the Dr. Laurie Sands Distinguished Professor of Families & Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center-Highland Family Medicine Center, where she directs the Institute for the Family in the department of psychiatry. Dr. McDaniel’s research, which includes doctor-patient communication, has been widely published in professional journals. She was the 2016 president of the American Psychological Association.