Here’s How to Ask the Tough Questions Your Doctor Wants You to Ask
No matter how much you’ve been worrying about a health problem in the lead-up to an appointment, it’s easy to forget all your burning questions the moment you take a seat opposite your doctor. Instead, you find yourself nodding along silently, unable to think of anything to ask — or even concerned that the questions you do have are embarrassing or sound silly. Fortunately, doctors understand this. Dr. Brian Cassmassi, MD, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, CA, gets why patients sometimes back out of asking their pressing questions: “I think the primary reasons are embarrassment or lack of confidence. Certain topics are uncomfortable to talk about, and some patients may also think that the doctor will impart all the relevant information on their own. In addition, if physicians come off as all-knowing or rushed, it makes asking for clarification seem daunting.”
You’re definitely not alone in developing a sudden case of shyness in front of your doctor, but Cassmassi and his colleagues really want you to be able to ask all the questions you have. Here’s encouragement to help you find your voice — and info on the topics doctors really want you to cover.
1. Doctors aren’t easily fazed. While you might be dealing with certain symptoms for the first time, chances are your doctor has come across them before. Dr. Crystal Bowe, MD, a family medicine practitioner, reassures us, “Doctors like myself have trained for over a decade before seeing our first patient. There is nothing you could ask me I haven’t heard before!” Even if your question is new to them, they’re trained to handle it like a pro. “One of the key points taught early on in medical school is how to listen and be empathetic toward the patient,” Cassmassi explains. “So even if you feel embarrassed to ask something, physicians have been trained to respond with empathy, or to at least be as matter-of-fact as possible.”
2. No topic is taboo. The more information your doctor has, the better they can help you, so they want you to know that you really can discuss anything. “Our goal is that once people enter our offices, they feel they are in a safe zone so they can divulge anything,” emphasizes Dr. Beth Donaldson, MD, a family physician and the Medical Director at Copeman Healthcare Centre Vancouver. “Extramarital affairs, sores in awkward places, certain smells here and there, feeling overwhelmed by the demands of kids/partners/work: All physical and mental stress affects health, so we need to know about it, and we’re ready. Many people can’t divulge these personal things to anyone else in their life, but keeping it all inside can cause short- and long-term health problems. Tell your doctor!” Instead of fearing judgment, take advantage of a sympathetic ear and let it all out.
3. There are no stupid questions. If it’s not the topic that’s got you tongue-tied but the fear that your question is too basic and your doctor will think you’re stupid for asking it, don’t worry. “Education equals power and choice,” Donaldson encourages. “The more educated our patients are, the better. Your physician is there to demystify your healthcare and make it all more commonplace. Asking questions can only lead to an informed decision-making process that benefits the physician/patient relationship in the long run.” This includes questions that might not occur to someone else but matter to you. If you’re worried about how your condition or treatment might affect your life and your body, even in ways that might not bother other people, bring it up with your doctor. Cassmassi says, “Always ask about anything that is important to your lifestyle: Can I still swim? Can I still skydive for my 40th birthday? Will this affect my chances of getting pregnant? Am I going to gain weight?”
4. They can simplify medical terms. Physicians know that sometimes they can “lapse into ‘doctor speak,’” as Cassmassi puts it, so don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify if you don’t understand certain terminology. “We expect patients without medical background to ask questions,” Cassmassi continues. “This actually reminds us that we need to explain things in a more comprehensible, approachable manner. Sometimes if a physician is rushed they may seem taken aback by simple questions, but most should have the skills to respond without being condescending.”
5. You should understand everything about your medication. Your doctor hands you a prescription, you take it gratefully, and hours or even days later you realize that you don’t really know anything about your new medication. To avoid that, Bowe recommends asking these key questions: “What is the medicine for? When should I take it? Are there side effects I should expect? Is there something I shouldn’t do while taking it? How long should I expect to be on this medicine?” She also adds, “I strongly encourage patients to bring all their medicines to each visit.” Donaldson adds some ways you can get more specific: “Are there any benefits besides the primary goal? How will it interact with other medications? Will it interrupt sleep? Are blood tests required to monitor possible effects on the body? Can you drink alcohol while taking it? Should you take it on a full or empty stomach? How often should you check in with your physician while on the medication?” She also reminds that your pharmacist is a good resource if your physician isn’t available.
6. You don’t have to rely on your memory. If you’ve forgotten half of the list you just read, that’s fine! Dr. Octavia Cannon, DO, an osteopathic obstetrician and gynecologist who co-owns Arboretum Obstetrics and Gynecology LLC, suggests, “Write down questions or type them into your phone to take them to the appointment. It can help you organize your thoughts.” This also applies when you’re getting those answers. “Take someone with you,” she advises, “and if you can’t or don’t want to, take notes or record the doctor’s instructions.”
7. You should be comfortable talking to the right doctor. In order to feel like you can ask your doctor anything, you need to trust them to listen and take you seriously. Cannon wants her patients to know, “You chose me to be your physician, and I am here to help you make decisions about your health. What we discuss in the office stays in the office, unless we both agree to involve other people. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your physician, you must get a new one: Your life may depend on it. Rely on the recommendations of friends or family to help you find a good fit.” Your questions and concerns matter: The right doctor knows that and will be happy to hear from you.
Tell us what questions you think are the hardest to ask your doctor @BritandCo.
(Photos via Getty)