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 other issue that you want to get better. But often in their haste to be cured, 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 or explain how to take their newly prescribed medications.
Doctors say they wish their patients would be more proactive and ask these questions during their visit.
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. 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.”
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 at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 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.
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.
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 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.
What do you do for your personal wellness?
Engaging your doctor in a conversation about his or her health can give you an idea of what you should be doing in your own life, says Dr. Jack Der-Sarkissian, assistant area medical director at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. “A physician who practices a healthy lifestyle is more successful in getting their patients to adopt healthy living,” he says. “A patient should be able to ask their physician about how he or she practices wellness, and a physician should be honest and open to the discussion.”
Some doctors might be more comfortable discussing their personal habits than others. If you sense discomfort, try pivoting the conversation back to you, such as asking, “Do you practice any personal wellness tips that I could apply to my lifestyle?”
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.
Does 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.”
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 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 issue?
It’s 2021, 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.”
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.
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?
— 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?
— 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?
— What do you do for your personal wellness?
— How many patients with my condition have you treated?
— Does my child really need an antibiotic for this?
— 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 issue?
— Is my personal odor or discharge normal?
More from U.S. News
17 Questions Doctors Wish Their Patients Would Ask originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 10/05/21: This story was published previously at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.