Questions for doctors are powerful patient tools

by Toni Bigby

Our Federal Government is investing in a consumer education campaign called, “Questions are the Answer.” The idea is to encourage people to watch out for themselves a little better and be their own advocate by asking their doctors questions like, “Why do I need this surgery?” and “Are there any side effects from this drug?”

Why are we as health care consumers, who collectively spend trillions of dollars each year on health care, likely to ask more questions about a $15 dinner than a doctor’s diagnosis? Why isn’t there a menu listing the costs associated with the services/procedures/drugs that a doctor says we need before we decide whether or not we can actually afford the service?

The way we pay for health care is like we have a high interest credit card with no limit. We buy now and pay later — so much later that our future generations will still be paying because many of us are hesitant to ask: “Do I really need this? Is this my only option? Should I get a second opinion?”

Who is responsible?
Yes, doctors should elicit patient questions and answer them fully. And many doctors –- but not all — even take the opportunity to answer the questions their patients don’t think to ask like, “What are your health care goals?”, “Do you want to live pain free?”, or, “What are the side effects you have experienced from this particular drug or procedure?”

But doctors cannot bear the weight of this burden alone, nor should they. Patients have a responsibility to become informed and to take necessary actions to improve their health. Families ought to help in the decision making process and be supportive. Health plans should have clinicians and medical professionals that proactively help their members understand what options they have.

Patients should ask the obvious questions outlined at the link referenced above. But the historical reluctance to question the health care provider continues to linger on. Don’t get me wrong -– I appreciate the wealth of knowledge that doctors amass. Often times, they know too much which makes it that much harder to communicate to those of us who can’t even remember our own blood type. And besides, it’s hard to ask a question of someone who’s halfway out the door, instructing you to come back for another billable visit and who’s just probably told you something you didn’t necessarily want to hear.

My point is, even if you engage your doctor in meaningful conversation about your diagnosis, the doctor should not be the only one responsible for deciding what is best for you. Each one of us should have an entire team established — the health care consumer, our family, our doctor, and our health plan — all working together in unison.

Why? Because too many of us pay for decisions made simply because the doctor “says so.” We as a country need to decide collectively that we will begin to make informed decisions in the future -– not just the billable ones charged to an unrestricted credit card.

Toni Bigby is Director, Consumer Advocacy at CareSource.

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