5 Ways to Ask Your Doctor Better Questions

I hear it every day: “How can I possibly challenge my doctor when I’m not a physician? What do I know anyway?”

No matter what your educational background, economic situation or personality, it’s very common  to feel unsure about questioning a physician. Even if you’re comfortable posing questions to your teacher, laFeatured imagewyer, accountant or boss, medicine may seem like an entirely different thing, far too complicated for patients to understand well.

But the art of
asking the right questions does not require you to know the answers. After all, if you knew the answers, you wouldn’t have to be asking the questions!  Here are five tips for developing the ability to ask the right questions when you’re getting a diagnosis, prescription, or treatment recommendation that requires some discussion:

  1. Ask for clarity. There’s always a moment of shock when you hear you have something, no matter what it is. As a result, you need to learn more. The first thing out of your mouth should be “Can you explain more about this situation?” This is useful for several reasons. When you’re shocked by something, you’re more likely to hear something wrong. Taking time listening to the expanded version of your problem will help you catch your breath and think through what questions you’ll need to ask.
  2. Explore broad options for diagnosis and treatment. Usually the doctor will go from the description of your problem, or diagnosis, to recommended testing and possibly treatment. This is a good time to explore your “decision tree,” the depth and breadth of ways to handle  your health issue. Ask “Can this problem be diagnosed or treated any other way?”  This question isn’t just useful for the BIG things in health. It’s useful for everything. I had a small chip in my front tooth the other day and it was very helpful to talk through the range of options with my dentist.
  3. Probe the pros and cons, risks and benefits of your options. Every test, procedure, surgery, drug and strategy has pros and cons, and reasonable alternatives. Individual physicians may tend to favor one approach over another. But because you’re a unique individual, you may have a different preference on which approach to take. It’s important to hear the information you need and then to express which sounds like a better fit for you.
  4. Then delve a little deeper: ask specifically what is the percentage chance “X” will happen, based on my particular situation. For most diseases and conditions, a lot of research has been done to guide you and your physician in understanding the real risk of options like surgery, watchful waiting, getting physical therapy instead of surgery, losing weight instead of going on a blood pressure medication, taking one drug instead of another, etc. etc.  It’s good to hear what science says. I have a friend in his 80’s who is an extremely active person, plays golf, gardens, goes to hear live jazz. After getting a CAT scan for an abdominal problem, the radiologist noticed he had a abdominal aortic aneurysm (something that had nothing to do with the reason he had the CAT scan, by the way). The risk of the aneurysm bursting was estimated at 20 percent. At age 88, that was a risk my friend could live with. As my friend reminded the doctor, the chance his aneurysm would not burst was in fact 80 percent.  No matter what you decide, being armed with the best numbers to help define your situation will be helpful to you as you consider options.
  5. Find out if it could be helpful to get another point of view from a different kind of specialist. Health professionals typically agree that a surgeon often sees surgery as the solution and a radiologist may prefer radiology. Every medical specialty carries a certain innate preference for how to handle certain problems. Hearing from physicians with different points of few might sound like it will leave you even more confused, but instead, it is likely to help you better understand what you’re facing and most importantly, what your personal preference for treatment might be.
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About Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN

I'm an experienced healthcare and science editor and journalist. But most of all, I'm a registered nurse with many years of experience working in hospitals. I've learned what patients and families need first hand. But I've also worked to improve hospitals and educate people about their health. I'm committed to helping people take charge of their health care and get what they need from a complex and often discouraging healthcare system.
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