Questions doctors wish their patients would ask

A curious patient is a healthy patient.

When you go to the doctor it’s typically for a specific problem, such as a cold, stomach pain or another issue that you want to get better. But it’s also an opportunity to learn what’s going on in your body, understand why you’re receiving a specific treatment and find out how to be as healthy as possible.

Frequently, in their haste to be seen for whatever ails them, patients fail to ask doctors questions about their health. They may not take advantage of the short amount of time with the one person who can decipher their blood test results, explain how to take their newly prescribed medications or directly address their deepest — but often unspoken — bodily concerns. Patients may also hesitate to ask about basic issues within the medical practice that would make office visits go more smoothly.

Doctors say they wish their patients would be more proactive and ask these questions during their visits:

What preventive care services are right for me?

Preventive care is intended to target disease prevention and keep the patient healthy. “I would like to hear more patients ask about preventive care,” says Dr. Lisa Ravindra, an assistant professor in the department of internal medicine and a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “That means discussing current guidelines on age-appropriate tests and vaccines.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an influential and independent panel of medical experts, does extensive research to determine which preventive measures are most important and potentially lifesaving for specific age groups and genders, she notes.

You can search the USPSTF recommendations by topic online. Your physician can describe why specific types of preventive care measures, such as breast cancer screening or shingles vaccination, are healthy choices and potentially the right fit for you.

Do you understand what I just said?

It can feel like doctors and patients aren’t taking part in the same conversation. “The most important question that patients should ask is, ‘Do you understand what I said?'” according to Dr. Tia Guster, an obstetrician-gynecologist and current department chair with Piedmont Healthcare in Newnan, Georgia.

Sometimes, patients say they’ll relate a concern to a physician who may then come back with a response that doesn’t fit the patient’s meaning or need, Guster says. Physicians and patients alike can benefit from asking, ‘Am I understood?’ Otherwise, she says, “That is a big barrier to getting great care.”

Will your treatment address what matters most to me?

Doctors who work with older adults have developed a “4-M” framework to help shape patient visits, says Dr. Samuel Durso, a geriatrician and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. Those four m’s stand for medications, mentation (issues like dementia and memory changes), mobility and what matters most.

Letting the doctors know what really matters to you — whether it’s a particular problem like joint pain, or broader issues like how to remain robust and stay healthy for as long as possible — can inform their decisions about your care, Durso says.

As the patient, that focus can also shape your own questions: Would a newly prescribed medication with significant side effects — confusion or fatigue, for example — interfere with what matters most to you, like staying active and mentally clear?

Would you recommend this treatment to a family member?

“Another great question is, ‘If it was you sister or mom, would you recommend this to them?'” Guster says. That allows you to “recontextualize” a routine professional discussion to one on a more human, relatable level, she explains, and it gives your doctor an opportunity to shift their perspective.

As a physician, she adds, “Sometimes you have to remind yourself, ‘I have a mother, I have a wife, I have a sister. Would I want this for them?'”

Which internet resources can I trust for medical information?

Anyone with a blog can give out information and advice on medical issues, says Dr. Michael Langan, an internal medicine physician affiliated with several medical centers in Ohio. Ask your doctor about which sites he or she trusts, so when you inevitably Google your symptoms, you’re not being misled.

“I get many comments about what patients read on the internet,” he says. “Unfortunately, I never get the question as to whether the resources they used are even a trustworthy source of information. Information is important, but accurate and reliable information is far more important.”

How does my family history affect my risk for certain conditions?

It’s important to discuss family medical history with your doctor, Ravindra says. Some medical conditions affect multiple family members across generations. If first-degree relatives, such as a parent or sibling, or even more distant relatives have heart disease, an autoimmune disease or some types of cancer, you could be at higher risk.

“Now that we have more advances in genetic testing for conditions that run in families — for example, BRCA1 and BRCA2 (gene mutations related to breast and ovarian cancer) and some hereditary colon cancers — knowing this information can be lifesaving,” she explains. Pancreatic cancer has also been linked to BRCA gene mutations.

How does this medical practice work?

Each medical practice has its own processes and procedures. Being aware of the basics — like office hours — or intricacies of obtaining test results allows you to navigate visits more smoothly.

Most patients have had enough experience with medicine to know we’re in a complex world, Durso says. Although you get contact numbers when being discharged from an outpatient procedure, for instance, “Unfortunately, too often, you don’t get through to somebody who’s going to help,” he says. “You want to know how the doctor communicates and how they’re going to stay in touch. How do they work with their partners when they’re not around?”

Also, pay attention to subtle cues about doctor-patient interactions, he suggests. Does the doctor take time to ask questions, listen to your answers and have a conversation, or are they more focused on typing onto their screens?

How does your office currently deal with COVID-19?

Are masks required in the waiting room? What if you’re infected with the virus? If you test positive and feel sick in the middle of the night, what do you do? Even though the pandemic appears to be waning, these are all things you still need to know.

Are there telehealth options? By necessity, telemedicine ramped up during the pandemic, with many medical practices creating or augmenting telehealth systems to substitute for in-office visits that posed infection risks.

Today, you might find telehealth visits can be more convenient, even for routine, non-COVID issues. “More and more practices use telemedicine when that seems like the right thing to do,” Durso says.

Why are you prescribing this medication?

Too often doctors expect patients to blindly trust their judgment when prescribing medications, Langan says. But you deserve more information. First is why you’re receiving the drug. You also should be told (or ask) about dosage, instructions like whether to take a drug on an empty stomach, side effects and potential interactions with other medications you take.

When patients ask why they’re being given a certain medication, it’s an opportunity for the doctor and patient to have an open conversation about treatment. “I want patients to understand what they are taking and why they are taking it,” he says. “I try to explain this routinely, but sometimes it is difficult to completely understand a patient’s perspective on their illness and medications. If they don’t understand, I want to know.”

Will flying post-surgery affect my recovery?

Always tell your physician if you’re planning a flight around the time you’re undergoing a procedure such as a biopsy or skin excision, says Dr. Suzanne Olbricht, chief of dermatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “I always get a little anxious if I’m doing a procedure and the patient says, ‘Oh, by the way, tomorrow I’m flying to Australia,'” she says. “That’s not a good thing.” Air travel can potentially contribute to wound complications such as infection or bleeding.

Even for patients who aren’t undergoing a surgical procedure, air travel can impair your overall health. Because flying exposes you to long periods of forced sitting and being in close quarters with other passengers, ask your doctor how to reduce potential risks for blood clots and whether you need to update your travel vaccinations.

How could high blood pressure affect my health down the road?

If you’re diagnosed with hypertension, there are many treatments to help keep your blood pressure under control. You should understand why it’s important to do so and the long-term effects that high blood pressure can have, Ravindra says. Staying informed gives you awareness of symptoms to watch for and helps you take proactive measures to reduce your risks from this “invisible” but serious medical condition.

How does sleep impact my health?

Getting a good night’s sleep doesn’t just improve your mood the next day. If you’re experiencing insomnia, it can impact your physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation has been linked in studies to increased long-term risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and shorter-term risks like coming down with a common cold.

Let your doctor know if you’re having trouble sleeping and ask how sleep affects your health, Ravindra advises. That opens the conversation to possible causes of sleep deprivation that can be addressed through lifestyle changes or other means.

How many patients with my condition have you treated?

Having confidence in your doctor means you’re more apt to follow his or her instructions, says Dr. Jack Jacoub, an oncologist and medical director at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in California.

Asking about their previous experience with your condition is a great way to ensure that you’re getting the best treatment you can. “Experience is critical in managing complex cancer cases,” he adds.

Do I or my child really need an antibiotic for this?

Parents will often bring their child into the doctor’s office because of a cold and expect the physician to write a prescription for an antibiotic, even though it’s not necessary and will not cure a cold. This is not only careless, says Dr. Stan Spinner, chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care, but has also led to a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“Physicians often feel the need to prescribe an antibiotic to appease the parent,” he says. “Such a question from the parent will lessen the likelihood that an antibiotic may be prescribed for a condition that is likely to resolve on its own.”

The same holds true for antibiotic prescriptions and adults patients, for instances when antibiotics — which are intended and effective for bacterial infections — are instead used for viral respiratory infections like bronchitis or sinusitis.

Am I up to date on my vaccinations and what do you recommend?

Immunization guidelines are typically clear-cut, with the notable exception of continually updated COVID-19 recommendations. “That’s been a little bit of a moving target,” Durso says.

Your doctor’s office should be able to advise you on seasonal immunizations, like when to get a flu shot, or whether you need a tetanus shot update or a pneumonia or shingles vaccine. “The answer to that is settled, unless you have a contraindication,” he says, in which case your doctor will know it.

If you need to know about travel vaccination requirements, your doctor’s office can provide or direct you to appropriate sources of information.

Doctors and patients alike can go online and view standard vaccination recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the CDC’s most recent information on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

My real fear is ‘X’ — how concerned should I be?

You shouldn’t hesitate to ask your primary care physician about anything related to your health, Ravindra emphasizes. “For instance, a patient who has finger numbness may have Googled their symptoms and be worried about stroke or diabetes as a cause,” she says. “However, a thorough exam and asking the right questions on my end will easily differentiate these serious conditions from something more benign like carpal tunnel syndrome.”

Be upfront with your fears, she adds. “A patient may note intermittent abdominal discomfort, but what they are truly worried about is pancreatic cancer, because their neighbor was recently diagnosed.” Once physicians know what’s really on your mind, they can address your concerns head-on.

Can we talk about end-of-life care?

“For elderly patients and those with chronic illnesses, I’d like to hear more patients ask to discuss their wishes for end-of-life care,” Ravindra says, and to address advanced health care directives.

Advanced directives include the medical power of attorney for health care and living wills, which spell out choices such as whether you want interventions like CPR, mechanical ventilation or tube feeding, and under what conditions.

“This can help ensure (patients’) priorities are followed through on — whether that’s aggressive means to prolong life or comfort care when the time comes,” she says.

When should I come see you again?

Doctor visits shouldn’t be relegated to the times you’re sick, says Dr. Philip Werthman, director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine & Vasectomy Reversal in California. While he suggests that women tend to be more proactive about their health, men should schedule regular appointments for checkups so they can be sure they’re living their healthiest life possible.

“I wish the men would take preventive care more seriously and start seeing a doctor in their late 30s on a regular or annual basis, much like women see their gynecologists every year for a checkup,” he says. “They can then be empowered to make healthier choices in their lives and prevent diseases, while also giving the physician the opportunity to detect diseases before they become symptomatic.”

Can we discuss ‘X’ gynecological, urological or sexual issues?

It’s 2022, but many people are still reluctant to discuss intimate health concerns. However, it’s hard to shock or surprise your doctor, who has likely heard it all. “People are so embarrassed to talk about sex,” Guster says. “But you should talk about sex. Because you’re probably not the only one having a problem with it.”

No need to mumble or use discreet euphemisms. “Just straight-up ask the question and ask it in the tone you normally would,” Guster advises. “If you use some kind of offhand term, just use it — because we’re used to hearing about all the body parts with all kinds of different names. You will not be offensive to us. If you try to filter it for us, sometimes we may miss what you ask.”

Continence is another concern that patients sometimes hesitate to voice, Durso says. “A lot of people are very chary about mentioning that they don’t go out too much because they’re afraid they can’t get to the bathroom, particularly if they’ve been put on medicines like diuretics,” he says. “So, doctors should bring that up.” Either way, speaking up about this common issue can help solve the problem.

Is my personal odor or discharge normal?

Dentists and dental hygienists are often asked: “Do I have bad breath?” and they’re prepared to give patients an honest answer — and follow up with solutions.

As an OB-GYN, Guster knows patients may have another concern they can’t quite bring themselves to voice. “People really hesitate to ask about or describe their vaginal discharge,” she says. “Everybody’s always so squeamish.” Your doctor won’t be put off, she says. “No, we actually want to hear this,” she emphasizes. “Because some of your descriptions are normal. Some of your descriptions are not.”

Guster wants to dispel mystery and uncertainty, “particularly if you’re walking around (thinking) ‘I don’t know if this is right,'” she says. “Just tell me what it is, and I can tell you if this is on the line or not.”

Similarly, men should feel free to ask their urologists or primary care providers about any type of discharge or symptoms of concern.

Who can help me manage my condition between visits?

If you have a chronic medical condition, routine appointments with your doctor alone may not be enough.

When you have congestive heart failure, for instance, you might need periodic check-ins by a nurse to monitor your blood pressure and weight, and make sure your legs aren’t swelling from excess fluid and you’re not experiencing shortness of breath.

Many people with diabetes benefit from speaking with a certified diabetes educator or registered dietitian as needed, for expert advice on medications or nutrition in the moment. For continuity of care, “You might ask doctors how they’re paired up with social work, dietitians and therapists,” Durso suggests.

Questions Doctors Wish Patients Would Ask

A doctor’s visit is a key opportunity for a healthy conversation. Speak up with questions like these:

— What preventive care services are right for me?

— Do you understand what I just said?

— Will your treatment address what matters most to me?

— Would you recommend this treatment to a family member?

— Which internet resources can I trust for medical information?

— How does my family medical history affect my risk for certain conditions?

— How does this medical practice work?

— How does your medical practice deal with COVID-19?

— Why are you prescribing this medication?

— Will flying post-surgery affect my recovery?

— How could high blood pressure affect my health down the road?

— How does sleep impact my health?

— How many patients with my condition have you treated?

— Do I or my child really need an antibiotic for this?

— Am I up to date on my vaccinations and what do you recommend?

— My real fear is ‘X’ — how concerned should I be?

— Can we talk about end-of-life care?

— When should I come see you again?

— Can we discuss ‘X’ gynecological, urological or sexual issues?

— Is my personal odor or discharge normal?

— Who can help me manage my condition between visits?

More from U.S. News

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21 Questions Doctors Wish Their Patients Would Ask originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 09/20/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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