Questions patients should be asking their doctors

An excerpt from Top 5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor

by Sagar Nigwekar, MD and James Sutton, RPA-C

Tips for Talking to Your Doctor

Entering a doctor’s office can be like entering a different world. There are often “rules” and “protocols” that the doctor, nurses, and staff follow that you may not be familiar with. This book offers some very helpful questions for you to have an intelligent conversation with your doctor, but there are other things that can be helpful in making the office visit better.

When you think about the patient/doctor relationship, the word “relationship” is very important. The typical doctor has 2000 to 3000 patients, most of whom they see only once or twice a year. Seeing 20 to 30 of these patients each day, most doctors have only professional relationships with their patients and the majority of their patients are known by just a name and whatever information is in the medical record. This is worsened by the fact that you may only see your doctor for a few minutes a couple times a year. Therefore, you should be in “relationship building” mode from the minute you enter the office. The better the relationship you have with your primary doctor, the higher the likelihood you can have good and detailed conversations with him or her.

What do we mean by “relationship building?” Well, think of any relationship you have with people close to you and what you do to build those relationships. Think of your spouse, co-workers, casual friends, and family and the things you do to have good relationships with these people. Those same basic principles can go a long way to help build a relationship with your doctor. Here are a few tips.

Dress for success

Dressing professionally shows power and confidence. Doctors and their staff are people too, and even though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we all do! If you were going for an interview, going to the bank to ask for a loan, or going out on a date for the first time you would try to look your best to make a good first impression. Dress up to see your doctor, and you will see the difference in your treatment at every step of the visit.

Bring someone with you

Doctors are used to having more than one person in the room at a time. A doctor will act differently with more than one person in the room, because most people function differently in group settings than one-on-one. Also, when you are sick or dealing with an uncomfortable diagnosis, having another person in the room to remember what was said is always helpful. Whoever comes with you can sometimes catch things from the conversation that you may have missed. One word of caution: make sure you are comfortable discussing personal information in front of the person you bring!

Connect with your doctor

Building a relationship is about connecting with the other person. Doctors normally allow a minute or two at the beginning of the visit for this connection. Take this time to smile, shake hands, make good eye contact, and use this time to “socialize” before the visit begins. Good opening lines are “Looks like a busy day today” or “I haven’t seen you in a long time” or “I like the changes you made to the waiting room.”

Set the agenda

Doctors have a limited amount of time for office visits. In order to use their time wisely they usually set the agenda and control the visit as much as possible. Because of this control you may realize that the visit is over before you got around to asking your questions. To prevent this, be involved in setting the agenda for the visit. Most doctors will start the visit with an opening question such as “How can I help you today?” or “What can I do for you today?” This is your opportunity to set the agenda. If you say, “I have had this headache for three days,” then the doctor will shift their brain into headache mode and that becomes the agenda for the day. Here are some ways to set the agenda:

Doctor: How can I help you today?

Patient: I am not sick today. I just want to spend a few minutes talking about my diabetes, and I have some questions to ask you about my illness.

Doctor: How can I help you today?

Patient: I have had a headache for three days. After you make your diagnosis, I would like to ask you a couple questions about my condition.

Most doctors consider the diagnosis as the end of the visit and then shift their attention to prescribing a treatment. If you don’t warn your doctor that you are going to finish the visit with a few questions, then he/she may not time the visit correctly and the visit may start to run overtime as you ask your questions.

Use your time wisely

Timing is everything. Be prepared to talk about your questions and issues in the least amount of time. Have your questions ready before the doctor enters the room. If you are there for a specific symptom, then as soon as a diagnosis (or possible diagnosis) is mentioned, open your book to the appropriate page and be prepared to ask your questions.

Allow for some silence

A well timed pause goes a long way. How many times have you tried to get something done while someone else is chatting away and breaking your concentration? Don’t ask your questions during the examination, or when the prescription is being written, or if the doctor is still asking questions to determine the diagnosis. Let the conversation flow naturally and allow the doctor time to “practice his craft” such as look in the record, perform an examination, and ask questions. Save your questions for after this is done.

There are certain questions that are important to ask anytime you see your doctor. It is important to know and understand what your health problems are, as well as to understand your treatment. If your doctor has recently diagnosed a new medical condition, or is starting or changing a treatment, you will find these questions very helpful. In addition to the disease-specific questions in this book, you should also ask these questions about your treatment whenever you can.

Top 5 questions

How will I know that my treatment is working?

How will the medication or treatment you are prescribing treat my condition?

Is there more than one condition that could be causing my problem?

What exactly is my condition, and what caused it?

What symptoms should I look for that means I should contact you or seek immediate help?

Additional questions you may consider asking

Are there treatment choices that don’t involve medications?

How long will it take for me to feel better?

If my symptoms get worse, what can I do on my own before I see you?

Is my medical condition permanent or temporary?

Questions You Should Ask About Your Medications

Any time you are prescribed a medicine you should ask these questions:

Top 5 questions

Can I take a generic medicine or is this available over the counter?

Can you review my instructions with me?

  • At what time should I take this medication?
  • Should I take it with or without food?
  • Can I take it with other medications?

What are the possible risks and side effects of this medication?

What is the reason for taking this medication, and how does it work?

Will this medication interact with any other medication I am taking?

Additional questions you may consider asking

Can my medication be stopped suddenly or does it need to be stopped slowly?

Do I need to follow any restrictions (alcohol, driving, and work)?

Do you think a pill box will help me?

How long will I need to take my medicine?

If I do not tolerate this medication then what are my alternatives?

What should I do if I miss a dose?

Where do I store this medication at home?

Sagar Nigwekar is an internal medicine physician and Jim Sutton is a family practice physician assistant. They are authors of Top 5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor.