Do you remember when you were little—or your kids were little—and you (or they) constantly asked, “Why, why, why?” Why is that dog barking? Why can’t I go to the park? We drove our parents crazy with all of our questions…so crazy that we slowly and carefully stopped asking why.

There are those who would argue that the “who,” “what,” “where” and “when” questions about life are the most critical. But I would argue that “why” is the question that fills life with fascination, understanding—and power.

“Who,” “what,” “when” and “where” are merely interesting. Does the exact date when Columbus landed in America or some battle occurred in some war really matter? Even a big date such as December 7 or June 6? The date is merely interesting, and, of course, it’s important to remember and honor the event. But the “why” is what changed the world.

Why did Columbus decide to sail west instead of east when he undertook his historic voyage? Why did the Japanese decide to attack Pearl Harbor and force the US into World War II? Why did the Allies choose to storm the beaches of Normandy as they did?

I am in no way minimizing the significance of those events nor the horrible loss of life that they and so many other historic events involved. But asking why gets us inside the act. Why enlightens us to the fascinating motivation for an action, whether it was large or small. Why did you hit your sister? Why did you choose that career? Why did you fall in love with him or her? Why did you decide to get a divorce? The answer to these and other questions can unlock the hidden emotions and even root causes of certain behaviors.

Why is the word that catalyzes change. It makes life interesting and encourages eye-opening discussions.

I was with a friend recently who told me that his father had died just the week before. The cause? He bled to death because the “new and improved” blood thinner he was taking had no antidote if bleeding did occur. Apparently, his father had a digestive issue that sent him to the hospital. The doctors told my friend that his dad would be fine. But suddenly he was bleeding out of control, and his abdomen filled with blood. And then he was gone…and my friend and his siblings never had a chance to say good-bye.

A zillion whys raced through my mind when I heard this tragic story. Why was he bleeding in the first place? Why didn’t the hospital give my friend a more realistic assessment? He could have easily driven the 150 miles to be with his father if he had known the situation was so dangerous. Why was there no antidote for the blood thinner he was taking?

And one of the most important questions to me—Why did his doctor prescribe that particular blood thinner when other options exist?

If my friend’s father had asked that question months or even years earlier, he might have made a different choice and be alive today.

Let me share my own story of how why changed my life and affected my health. Nearly 20 years ago, I found myself in the emergency room covered in hives from head to toe and with chest pains. Mind you, I wasn’t the strapping vision of health that I am today—I had grown up in the ’60s eating every processed food known to mankind…I was in the midst of an incredibly stressful period at work…I had a four-year-old and a one-year-old at home…and I actually had been experiencing hives for quite some time.

Well, thankfully, I wasn’t having a heart attack. The doctors in the ER gave me heavy doses of Benadryl, a prescription for the steroid prednisone, a prescription for the anxiety medication Xanax and the phone number of a psychiatrist. I diligently took the prednisone but held off on the Xanax…until the prednisone caused me to have a panic attack and then I really did need the Xanax!

Most importantly, as soon as the prescription for prednisone ran out, my hives returned. When I asked the doctor why the hives were back, he said that my dog, a collie, was the cause and I should stick with the prednisone. Well, our dog had been with us for 13 years—I was not suddenly allergic!

I questioned my allergist and questioned my internist…and neither could explain why this was happening to me. But I knew that steroids and Xanax were not a recipe for success, so I kept pursuing the question of why.

Fortunately, a friend directed me to Dr. Andrew Rubman, a naturopathic physician who had cured her supposedly incurable problem. I will spare you the details, but Dr. Rubman really did explain why I was having the problem…and he devised a plan to help me overcome it. I kept the dog…and I haven’t had hives in the 20 years since. It took some work—there was no quick-fix drug—but with Dr. Rubman’s guidance, I regained my health.

If we all asked why before jumping into health decisions, our health-care costs might be a whole lot lower and our lives a whole lot better. Had I not asked why, I would have spent the last two decades on extremely dangerous steroids, putting my health at tremendous risk and impacting my quality of life. But asking why changed everything.

Doctors acknowledge that there is an epidemic of overtesting throughout the health-care industry—MRIs and CT scans for lower-back pain…EKGs even when there are no cardiac symptoms…and annual pap smears for most women. For example, a study reported in JAMA Internal Medicine found that more than half of the requests for MRIs of the lumbar spine were ordered for indications considered inappropriate or of uncertain value. Translation: More than 50% of people who received an MRI for low-back pain wasted $1,000 or more.

Here’s something else to consider. The next time your doctor hands you a prescription, he/she may be prescribing a drug not because it is the best, safest or cheapest, but because he received a free meal from the manufacturer. And I don’t even mean a fancy meal—in some cases, it was simply a slice of pizza.

A while back, researchers analyzed the prescribing habits of 279,000 doctors who participated in Medicare Part D. They compared prescriptions to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and for depression written by doctors who had received meals from pharmaceutical companies with prescriptions by doctors who had not. Results: In all cases, the “fed doctors” prescribed more of the companies’ drugs than the doctors who had not been fed…and in three out of four cases, they were prescribing the drugs three to five times more often. For all of the drugs prescribed by the “fed” doctors, there were less expensive, equally effective alternatives available. Yet the doctors prescribed drugs manufactured by “their friends.”

What’s dangerous here is that with so many drugs on the market, most doctors don’t have the time or resources to stay current, so they rely on the information provided by the drug companies’ sales teams. The doctors may be prescribing because they feel obliged to “pay back” the pizza…or they may be prescribing because they like the salespeople…or they may be prescribing because they believed the sales pitch rather than doing their homework.

What does all this add up to? Danger! Here are just a few stats…

An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 hospital deaths are caused by medical errors annually.

An additional 700,000 people visit emergency rooms each year because of an “adverse drug event.” Aside from the very real health damage, the loss of time, the emotional stress and the potential loss of life, these errors cost real money—estimated at nearly $1 trillion a year in direct and indirect costs.

Now here’s the question: How many of those errors and near misses…and how much of that wasted time and money…could have been prevented by simply asking, Why? Is it possible that with some additional care, effort and forethought, we could find plenty of money to solve the health-care crisis?

In fact, we might not have a skyrocketing health-costs problem if we started asking why regularly, since people would not have the same level of medical suffering and expense. Some important questions…

  • Why do you recommend that drug? What’s your experience with this drug?
  • Why do I need that test?
  • Why are you recommending that treatment and not something less invasive?
  • Why must I take a drug to fix the problem? Are there nondrug options?

The list goes on and on. One simple word…one simple question…could change the course of people’s lives.

It may seem like I’m just singling out the medical industry for criticism. But not so. I can just as easily create a list of whys that people need to ask themselves or their loved ones…

  • Why do you smoke cigarettes, given the indisputable dangers associated with the habit?
  • Why do you believe you simply don’t like vegetables?
  • Why do you insist that your doctor prescribe an antibiotic every time you get a head cold, especially given the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the evidence that antibiotics do not help colds or even most ear infections?
  • Why do you refuse to exercise even though you are unhappy with your body image?
  • Why do you insist you have no self-control and can’t stop yourself from eating dessert every night?

We have a perfect storm for medical disaster: An overtaxed and undercommunicative medical industry and a patient community focused on paths of least resistance.

So what’s the bottom line? Simply this…

Talk to your doctor before making any decisions—especially before taking a drug or undergoing a procedure. These are complicated and risky decisions, so you must know all your options. And you must be sure that you understand the instructions you are being given. It’s all about the importance of asking why when making health-care decisions…and the risks you take by not asking.

The same holds true in all areas of life. Money decisions…legal decisions…insurance decisions…even when you are hiring household contractors. Why is what will get you the information you need to make informed choices. I know it means taking time. And I know we don’t always like having big, long, sometimes difficult conversations. I am one of the worst at wanting desperately to just make the decision and cross it off my list. But the risks that come with not having the conversation are just too great. So why not try it? Why not ask, “Why”?

Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast,  where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.