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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