To the average person, the medical profession can be considered a mystery. Whether it’s the wonder of the human body or complicated medical jargon, it’s still true that regular people are far from understanding medicine.
This is strikingly evident in people’s daily encounters with doctors. Research has shown that many people find it hard to express themselves when meeting their physician, including failing to ask critical questions or fully comprehending the medical advice given to them. This is especially unfortunate, since today’s innovative approaches, such as personalized medicine and doctor/patient shared-decision making, are designed to allow for better medical decisions — which can potentially fail to occur if patients do not fully understand the diagnosis, prognosis, and possible implications of their treatment plan.
Based on our experience working with patients, we’ve come to the understanding that the patient’s needs (whether conveyed to their physician or not) do not always go hand-in-hand with their doctor’s intentions. For us, this should serve as a wake-up call for many patients. This isn’t to say that doctors do not care for their patients, but rather to emphasize that the world of doctor/patient interaction is far too complex to assume that a doctor has considered all of a patient’s needs.
The patient’s first and foremost need is to get healthy – healthy not just in the sense of disease-free, but rather in the sense of disease-free and back to a normal life. There is a significant difference between the two. While you may care most about your productivity at work or your daily exercising in the gym, your doctor may be focused on treating the main cause of the disease and lowering the risk for complications, even though that may trigger certain limiting side effects.
That is why it’s important to take an active role when engaging with your doctor, and there is no better way than asking questions, and more importantly — the right questions.
Here are five questions that you should consider asking:
1. “What are the alternatives to the treatment options that you are suggesting?”
Up until recently, many treatment options were limited, and the ability to match a specific treatment to a specific patient was only partial. Today, this is not necessarily true anymore. It is likely that your doctor can offer you more than one option for treatment, and deciding your chosen treatment plan should be a shared process made together with your doctor. To ensure that this conversation happens, you should ask your doctor specifically about possible alternative treatments and their repercussions.
2. “What are the side effects of the treatment?”
Sometimes, the side effects of a treatment can be worse than the problem itself. Knowing the side effects of a treatment is one of the most important considerations for a patient. Often, your doctor will mention the risk of side effects, and will recommend a specific treatment that may be most helpful for treating the main cause of the disease. It is up to you to not only ask about potential side effects, but to also fully understand what they could mean for your daily life and day-to-day activities.
3. “What realistic outcomes should I expect from the treatment?”
Often, patients think that after receiving a treatment, their life will go back to normal. But in reality, not every treatment is a cure. Your doctor should know what you can and cannot realistically expect from a specific treatment. While you can be optimistic or pessimistic by nature, it’s important that you make decisions after hearing the realistic assessment of your doctor.
4. “Is there anything I can do on my own to improve my quality of life?”
Adjusting your lifestyle can add to your treatment plan and can therefore have a considerable impact on your quality of life and treatment outcomes. Usually, you can apply these kind of changes instantly by altering your diet, physical activity, sleep habits, stress management, and other activities. Lifestyle changes and changes to your daily routine may not be considered core medical interventions, but they are certainly areas that you should inquire about when talking with your doctor.
5. “Are there any other questions that I should ask?”
Almost everyone is familiar with the Socratic paradox “I know that I know nothing”, but when we are asked to apply this statement to our own lives, we can find it very difficult. As soon as you ask your doctor this question, they will think beyond the usual procedures and perhaps consider other important issues, such as psychological effects, which they might not have mentioned, had you not asked this question.
There are many useful online resources designed to guide you through asking the right questions. This website from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has some helpful tips and videos, including lists of questions for you to ask your doctor about your diagnosis, prognosis or condition. It also has an interactive “Question Builder” for a variety of conditions and symptoms.
To make sure you don’t miss or forget anything, you might want to write down your list of questions before your appointment or take notes during your meeting with the doctor. Another great option, thanks to mobile technology, is to record the conversation (it may be proper and amicable to notify your doctor beforehand). This allows you to review it later and follow any guidance you may have forgotten. Lastly, it is highly recommended that you bring someone you trust with you to see your doctor. This will not only ensure that you gather more information during the appointment, it can also help support you to better express your thoughts and desires during your interaction with your doctor, and throughout the course of your treatment.
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