Despite their best intentions, doctors are like the rest of us. They misconstrue, miscommunicate, and sometimes just plain mess up.
“It happens all the time where physicians and patients see different things in a different order of importance,” says Dr. Adrienne Boissy, chief of patient experience at Cleveland Clinic. While you may care most about preserving your tennis game or your ability to enjoy wine, your doctor may be focused on improving your pain scores or lowering your risk for certain complications.
“Doctors have the best intent, but that doesn’t ensure they’ll always recognize a patient’s greatest need,” Boissy says.
That’s why it’s important to take an active role when talking with your physician, says Dr. Ted Epperly, a clinical professor of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Asking questions is one of the best ways to ensure you and your doctor are on the same page,” he says. “And if your doctor doesn’t seem interested in answering, or you get a negative response, you need to find a new doctor.”
Here’s what experts think you should be asking your doctor:
Gone are the days when a doctor simply chooses the best course of action and dictates this choice to the patient, Epperly says. “It really should be a shared decision-making process,” he says. “My job is to inform my patients of their options, and then we sort it out together.” To ensure that conversation happens, you may have to ask your doctor about your alternatives.
You may assume your life will return to normal following a surgery or other treatment protocol, for instance, but your doctor may know the best possible outcome is a small improvement in one or two of your symptoms. If you knew what your doctor knows, that might change your decision to go through with a treatment, Boissy says. “So it’s very important to ask what type of medical and symptomatic outcomes you can expect.”
Doctors almost always have too much to do and too little time in which to do it. So when they meet with a patient, there’s the temptation to be as thorough as possible with tests or treatments. But sometimes certain tests or therapies can wait, Boissy says. Asking, “Is this necessary now?” can help your doctor stop and consider if what he or she is suggesting is required right away, or if it can wait a while.
Lifestyle choices like what you eat, how much you move or sleep, and whether you smoke account for 70% of your risk for illness and disease, says Dr. Rob Danoff, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and a certified family physician with Philadelphia’s Aria Health System. They also play a huge role in helping you recover from an existing condition.
“Adjusting your lifestyle is often more important than taking the right medication,” Danoff says. “But many doctors won’t suggest lifestyle interventions unless a patient asks.” So ask.
“There’s always the possibility that what I do with medications could hurt a patient,” Epperly says. Whether that hurt comes in the form of headaches or skin rashes or mouth blisters, those sorts of side effects are common—and are things patients should hear about from their doctors so they go into a course of treatment with eyes wide open, he says.
Boissy calls it an age old problem: A patient undergoes an MRI or blood work, and then finds herself at home without any idea when or how she’ll hear from her doctor about her results. “The anxiety of waiting around and staring into the dark abyss of uncertainty is terrible,” Boissy says. Hopefully your doctor will be explicit about how you’ll get your results. But if not, you should ask.
Modern medicine is expensive. And the sad reality is most doctors don’t know the costs to you of the different tests or medications or therapies they prescribe. “Depending on insurance, I could have just committed my patient to $7,500 worth of copays or bills without knowing it,” Epperly says. “I think it’s a doctor’s responsibility to be on top of that, but many only will be if the patient pushes them to find that out.” If your doctor doesn’t know, he or she should be able to refer you to an administrator on his staff who can help you find out before you commit to a certain course of action.
Depending on a doctor’s area of expertise, his or her insights into your symptoms and their causes may be very different from another doc’s. For this reason, seeking a second opinion is always prudent, Dr. Danoff says. A good primary care physician will point you to the right specialist. It may cost you an extra copay. But asking your doctor who else you could consult for a diagnosis is a good idea—especially if you’re considering surgery or side-effect-heavy drugs.
“I just heard this question from a patient last week, and I thought it was incredibly helpful,” Dr. Boissy says. She and her patient had covered “all the nuts and bolts” and technical aspects of his upcoming treatment schedule. But they hadn’t discussed the emotional impact the treatment would have on him. “That’s probably the most important side of things, and I might have forgotten to go through that with him if he hadn’t asked,” she says.