Get a straight answer from your doctor

How can patients get a straight answer from a doctor?

The answer is really very simple: Don’t accept a non-answer answer from a doctor on a question that really matters to you!

If you get a dodgy, vague, or useless answer don’t take it lying down. Politely insist that the doctor elaborate and clarify until you get a reply that you understand.

We doctors are totally scary, but if you have to have the guts to ask the question a second or even third time most docs will do their best to insure you get an answer that makes sense to you. Force the issue!

“Okay doc, now I need you to explain that again in plain English.”

Sometimes the doctor will have to look something up and get back to you. Sometimes the doc will have to work to explain something complicated in a way that you can understand. Sometimes if there is no definite answer available your doctor can help you understand the nature of the uncertainly.

Most doctors will work hard to get you an answer, but if your doc blatantly dodges your question after multiple direct inquiries you might just be stuck with a god-complex prick. This is good to know so that you can find another physician ASAP who works well with you.

A few tips for truth-seekers.

Be ready. Medical decisions and predictions can be really complicated. Add the amount of uncertainly that we work with and the straight answers can get really difficult to grasp. Most of the questions we dodge have difficult answers that might leave you with a headache. Don’t assume that the full answer is always going to make things more clear.

Be reasonable. You shouldn’t use the nuclear I-won’t-leave-till-I-get-an-answer option for every question that pops into your head. Doctors don’t mind giving the full answer from time to time, but if you have an insatiable curiosity you may want to do your own research with Dr. Google. You don’t want to be that patient your doctor groans to see because he knows he’s going to end up running an hour behind every time he sees you.

“Doc, suppose my pancreas was a sentient being trying to assassinate me. How would that change your treatment plan?”

Accept disappointment. Some patients confuse “a straight answer” with “the answer I wanted.” Sorry! You can ask till you’re blue in the face but your doctor still has to say, “Your runny nose doesn’t need antibiotics” and “90 year-old Aunt Ethyl probably won’t recover” every time. Persistence won’t change facts, but it may force exasperated docs to tell you a white lie just to make you quit badgering them. You don’t really want to force doctors to be dishonest with you.

Consider yourself warned! Use the “nuclear option” with caution. Now go forth and find out what your doc is really thinking.

Doctor D is a physician who blogs at Ask An MD.

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  • http://nostrums.blogspot,com Doc D

    Sometimes while seeing a patient i can tell we’re not clicking, but I can’t tell why: they don’t ask and my efforts to get them to open up aren’t working. At this point I fall back on repetition. Repeat the assessment, repeat the diagnosis, repeat the treatment…hoping something sticks.

    One time, a patient said, “Quit telling me that. I heard you the first time.” That outburst opened the gates; they were ticked off at waiting 45 minutes to see me, I had been on an emergency ambulance run. Once I explained, things were better: the feeling of being disrespected turned into grumpiness at the unavoidable…and we were able to engage on the medical problem.

    Ah, communication…. Sometimes even being annoying can turn out for the better.

  • TrenchDoc

    The truth? You want the truth? You can’t stand the truth. Exercise lose weight and quit smoking.

  • Doctor D

    Uh-oh! Another MD blogger has the Doctor D alias now! Looks like I’ll have to change my code name “Doctor Danger.” It has a cool super-villain sound to it!

    Thanks for the story. I think we’ve all had the frustrated patient blow up at us due to a communication breakdown we didn’t see coming. Hat’s off to you for handling that so well! I hope with posts like this to help patients express their frustrations in more effective ways.

    Trench Doc:
    You are right of course, but I must say that the “get your shit together or else” ultimatums haven’t been very effective in my experience.

  • Finn

    I followed one doc as he scooped up his interns & headed for the elevator to get answers to my questions. I understand he was pressed for time but my questions weren’t trivia or things I could easily have found via Google. Most of the docs I’ve seen have been quite willing to answer my questions, but it definitely helps to find out as much as you can about existing conditions before the appointment so you can focus questions on your own issues & treatment, rather than general information about the condition.

  • gzuckier

    If you don’t know to ask something, though, it doesn’t help. Personal experience:
    first visit with a specialist re a certain problem.
    specialist: “Well, this is your problem; but I’m guessing you don’t want an operation, right?”
    me: “Right”
    specialist: “Yeah, i could tell.”

    Years pass. first visit with a different specialist re same problem:
    specialist: “Oh, well, this might have been reversed if he had operated on ir when it first showed up; by now, though, it’s probably irreversible”.
    me: “Oh. He didn’t tell me that.”