With time in your doctor’s office limited, it’s never been more important to ask good questions that will help you get better health care.
Changes in the health care system—everything from merging medical groups to shorter doctor’s appointments—means you may need to change your approach to your own medical care. Gone are the days when your doctor had all the time in the world to chat with you. So be prepared to get the most from your appointment time.
If you are seeing a new doctor (or even seeing your doctor for the first time in a year or more), ask the following:
“What is your schedule?”
You may assume your doctor is in the office every day of the week, but better to know now that he or she does not work on Fridays or is never there on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings. That way, you can think about how best to contact him or her going forward.
“What is the best way to communicate with you about tests results, lab work, or general questions?”
Some doctors won’t call you about test results unless its bad news. Others call about everything, says Amber Tully, M.D., a family practitioner with the Cleveland Clinic. “You should leave the doctor’s office understanding the plan,” Dr. Tully says. “It sounds very obvious, but a lot of patients don’t know how and when results will be communicated.”
“What should I do if there is a medical emergency?”
Make sure you know which hospital your doctor is associated with, says Lynne Lillie, M.D., a practicing family physician in Rochester, Minnesota. This is also a good time to ask the doctor whether he or she will be following your case, if for some reason you are hospitalized. If not, who will follow you in the hospital, and how will your doctor get that information? Since it’s important to make sure that medications and other treatments do not cause dangerous interactions, you do need one person at the helm of your care. Also ask your doctor about emergency situations, Dr. Lillie says, adding, “It is important to recognize that not all emergencies need emergency room or hospital care, and you and your doctor may want to discuss where you’ll go in a variety of situations.”
“What can I tell you about myself that will make you remember me?”
It may seem like a funny query, but your doctor sees hundreds of patients, so “it’s a really important question,” according to Erika Schwartz, M.D., a founder of Evolved Science, a patient-centric medical practice with offices in New York, London, and Miami, and author of Don’t Let Your Doctor Kill You: How To Beat Physician Arrogance, Corporate Greed and a Broken System.
“If you ask that question, the conversation changes immediately, and the doctor will begin to think about who you are,” Dr. Schwartz says. “People feel like they don’t want to stand out when they are with the doctor, but at the same time they want to feel special. So tell your doctor not just about your medical condition, but something about you as a person.”
Dr. Lillie agrees. “We all want to be more than a list of medications to our doctors.”
While talking to your doctor:
“What’s my diagnosis?”
Obviously you want to know name the doctor is giving to your condition. But, says, Dr. Tully, ask for more than that. “Do you have any written information about my diagnosis? Do you have any additional resources for me? Do you have referrals for web sites or support groups?” Dr. Tully says most patients only remember 50 percent of what their doctors tell them, so getting some information on it is helpful. And after the doctor hands you the materials, she suggests, ask one more important question: “Can we go through this together?”
“How long until it gets better?”
Whatever your diagnosis, you should ask about when you’ll feel better. Are there long-term effects? Is this something I’ll have forever? How soon will you want to see me again?
“Can you explain why you’re ordering this medication/treatment?”
In an era of increasing reliance on technology and simple fixes, some patients are being over-treated, Dr. Schwartz says. When you ask this question, you’re not being snarky,you’re trying to understand if the test or the medicine is really necessary. “What you really want to know is, ‘How is this going to improve my cough? Or ease my back ache?’” she says. “’And how long before we see results and how long should I plan on taking it? And by the way, is there any other way, without this medication, that I can accomplish the same results? Can I change my diet? Sleep more? Is there a supplement I can take?’” Such questions let your doctor know that you want your health care to be thoughtful and considered, not cookie-cutter prescription writing, she adds.
“What are your thoughts on this?
This question should come after the statement that begins, “I read this online…” says Dr. Tully. You should also ask your doctor whether the web site you’re quoting from is one that he or she considers a good resource. This question opens up the topic of Internet research, and will help you better understand where to find the best online information for whatever condition you may need to research in the future. (It may also help you escape the fear that can sometimes crop up when you read on line information from less reliable sources.)
“Can I stop you for a minute?”
Save this question for when you don’t understand what the physician is saying to you or when you are feeling scared, Dr. Schwartz suggests. This lets the doctor know that you need a minute to collect your thoughts, and he or she may be better able to listen to your next question, which may be, “How would you deliver this information to your mother if she was scared about this? What would you say to her?” You want to make your experience personal for the doctor—“to you, it’s your life,” says Dr. Schwartz. “To them, it’s a job. But if you make it personal, it becomes about them, too.”
“When do you want to see me next?”
The thinking on annual physicals is in limbo, Dr. Lillie says. Mammogram recommendations are changing, pap smear recommendations have changed, your insurance may not cover a physical exam every year. But if you’re someone who has hypertension, diabetes, joint disease, cancer, or other conditions, you do need to be seen more frequently to address medication management and possible complications of these conditions, she adds. Ask your doctor about the plan going forward that way you know what to expect.