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Good Question

Why it never hurts to ask your doctor

When you're at a doctor's appointment, do you tend to clam up or speak up?

You may be wondering why it matters. Isn't it enough to simply listen carefully to what the doctor says?

Actually, not so much. If you aren't having a dialogue with your caregivers, you may be missing out on important information — and that could end up affecting your health.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) reports that patients who ask their health care providers questions get better quality health care and are happier with their results than those who don't ask questions. The AHRQ is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And knowing which questions to ask and when to ask them can help you make sure you're getting the right care at the right time. We asked Maria C. Reyes, MD, a primary care doctor at Rush, for advice on how to get the conversation started — and keep it going.

Your doctors are there to help you. So don't hesitate to speak up if there's something you don't understand.

Looking for answers

"A good place to begin is asking your doctor to explain things more plainly," Reyes says. "Physicians can get caught up in scientific terminology and may forget to explain things in a way that is easy for the patient to understand."

In addition, she recommends asking your doctor the following questions in these specific situations:

If you have just received a diagnosis:

  • How will my condition progress in the future?
  • Is there a cure, or is it a chronic condition?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • Do I need to make any lifestyle changes (diet, physical activity, habits, etc.)?

If your doctor recommends a procedure:

  • Why is this procedure my best option?
  • Are there any alternatives?
  • How many times have you done the procedure, and how long have you been performing it?
  • What are the potential complications?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • How long is the recovery period?
  • Will I need further treatment after the procedure?

If you are given a new prescription:

  • How do you spell the name of the medication?
  • How do I need take it (e.g., always with food because it can cause upset stomach, only at bedtime because it may cause drowsiness)?
  • How will this help my condition?
  • What are the potential side effects?
  • Would a generic drug work just as well?
  • Will this drug interact with my other prescriptions?
  • Are there any over-the-counter drugs or supplements I should avoid while I'm on this drug?

If you're told you need a test:

  • How will this test be used to diagnose or monitor my condition?
  • What are the benefits and risks of having this test?
  • When will I get the results, and how will they be communicated to me?
  • Will I need to repeat the test, and if so, how often?

Be prepared

Reyes also offers this advice to help you feel more confident about your appointments and your care:

  • Make a list of questions in advance. As soon as you're finished writing the list, put the list in your purse or coat pocket, or with your keys. That way, you won't forget it if you're rushing to get to your appointment or have other things on your mind.
  • If possible, bring a family member or friend with you, especially if you are getting test results or discussing treatment options. He or she can help make sure you understand what the doctor says and ask questions if you can't.
  • Follow up. If you don't have time during your appointment to ask everything, or if you forget questions, ask your doctor if you can email or call the office later for more information. Many doctors are open to communicating with patients electronically and will reply promptly.
  • Talk to the support staff. Physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses may also be available to answer questions before, during or after your visit.
  • Get a second opinion. If you want to confirm a diagnosis or learn about other potential treatment options, schedule an appointment with another doctor. Don't be afraid to tell your doctor you want a second opinion. He or she won't be offended or hold it against you — even if you decide to receive care elsewhere. "The important thing is that you're completely comfortable with the hospital, doctor and your care," Reyes says.

"Your doctors are there to help you," she adds. "So don't hesitate to speak up if there's something you don't understand. Or if you just want more information than the doctor initially provides."

Because when it comes to your health, the more you know, the better you'll feel.

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