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The Smartest Questions to Ask Your Doctor

What to bring up to be a more informed, proactive patient

Credit: Nirut Punshiri / EyeEm/Getty Images

No matter what you’re there for, a doctor’s office — usually with the smell of disinfectant, the harsh fluorescent lighting, the low-grade anxiety permeating the air — is almost always an unpleasant place to be. And that’s before you even start talking to a doctor. Once you’re in the appointment itself, it can be stressful to keep track of all your medical information. Whether you’re dealing with a serious condition or just trying to stay on top of your health, you’re likely to have questions you want to address.

“It is absolutely appropriate to ask whatever question you need,” says Martha Perry, a pediatrician at University of North Carolina and UNC Children’s Hospital. If a doctor responds unfavorably or doesn’t answer a patient’s question, she adds, that doctor isn’t doing their job. In practice, though, there are a number of reasons someone might be reluctant to ask questions, from self-consciousness to lack of medical knowledge. If you want to be a more informed, proactive patient but aren’t sure how to start, here are some questions to bring to your next appointment.

What’s the most common cause of what I’m experiencing, and what’s the most serious?

Wayne State University medical student Nathan Wood, who recently published a paper about code-switching, medical jargon, and doctor-patient communication in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, says those two questions can provide context about a patient’s symptoms. “If they say, ‘You know what? The most common cause is just some acid reflux, but the most serious cause is stomach cancer,’ that gives them really detailed information as a patient,” says Wood, who’s studying to enter primary care. A good follow-up question is “How concerned about this should I be?” With these queries, a patient can get a clearer idea of what could be causing their symptoms and how serious it is.

I know you can’t be sure, but what do you think is most likely to happen?

“This is one of those places where how you frame the question is important,” says Alison Turnbull, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “If you just say, ‘What’s going to happen?’ they’ll often say it’s too soon to tell or [they] don’t have a crystal ball, and that doesn’t help you at all.” But phrasing your question to acknowledge that the answer is only an opinion and that you aren’t asking for certainty, Turnbull says, “gives doctors a green light to be more honest with you about what’s happening.”

Another way to frame this is to ask about the best- and worst-case scenarios. “If they’re like, ‘Well, the best-case scenario is she survives, but she never wakes up and she goes to a nursing home for the rest of her life, and worst-case scenario, she dies tomorrow,’ that’s just narrowed things down a whole whole lot” in terms of potential outcomes, Turnbull says.

Who’s managing my care?

In the hospital — especially a teaching hospital — there may be a team of doctors working with a patient, and not all of them are necessarily authorized to share diagnoses or bad news. “It’s kind of like being in the Army, where you’re talking to a general and a lieutenant and a captain, and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what any of those things mean,’” Turnbull says. It can help a patient or their family members to find out which doctor is making the decisions about their care. That could change when shifts change, so this question may need to be asked more than once, but it will cut down on frustration and time wasted.

What is your general philosophy of care?

When working with a general practitioner, it’s important to make sure your expectations and values line up with the way your doctor will be treating you. “If you have completely different philosophies on how things should be treated, I don’t think that level of trust is going to be there,” says Lisa Coles, a primary-care physician at UC San Diego Health Community Care.

To know what kind of answer you’re looking for, it’s helpful to ask yourself what you’re expecting out of the patient-doctor relationship. If you’re generally healthy and want to stay that way, the relationship is going to look different than if you have an ongoing condition, and it may look different yet again if you prefer lifestyle changes to taking medication.

Coles adds that you should ask your general practitioner about the conditions they feel comfortable treating — some will treat certain conditions themselves while others will refer a patient to a specialist. Understanding a doctor’s approach can help you make a decision about whether or not they’re the right fit for your health needs.

“If you’re somebody who is only going to talk on the phone, and you have a physician who hates the phone, that relationship may not work.”

What screening tests am I due for?

It can be hard to stay on top of every preventative test or screening that you need — and what you need may change based on your family history, age, and any ongoing conditions — so it’s always a good idea to ask about upcoming tests at your regular appointment. Coles says that a doctor should take a patient’s full history into account to help guide them toward the necessary screenings, like mammograms or a colonoscopy, at the right time.

What should I be looking for?

If you’re dealing with an illness or injury, Perry says, make sure you know the signs of when your condition is getting worse. That way you can make a follow-up appointment if it’s necessary (or, otherwise, avoid unnecessary worry and a needless doctor’s visit). If you’re a caretaker of a patient or are looking at a long-term recovery, it can also be helpful to ask what you should be looking for in terms of growth and what milestones you should be hitting at what points.

How do you prefer that I communicate with you?

With the increased use of website patient portals and texting, doctor’s offices are changing the way they can communicate with patients. “If you’re somebody who is only going to talk on the phone, and you have a physician who hates the phone and will never get on it, that relationship may not work,” Coles says.

You should also ask how your doctor’s office communicates test results. Some offices only share results if there is something wrong or abnormal, and others will get in touch no matter what. Knowing what your doctor’s office does can keep you from anxiously waiting for a call that will never come.

Say the weird thing on your mind — and say thank you.

You should always share your worries with your doctor, even if you think they may be ridiculous. Voicing your concerns, no matter how unrealistic, can bring you peace of mind. If someone is worried about their risk of heart attack but never brings it up, for example, the doctor may not mention it even if they’ve ruled it out. “Doctors are very good about giving that reassurance to patients if they know that they need it, but not every doctor can read that social situation,” Wood says.

“We see so many patients every day that the patients’ worries about how we perceive them as individuals are greater than they need to be,” Perry says.

If you are worried that a doctor will judge you for asking questions, Perry suggests thanking them first. “A lot of times, [patients] just ask the questions and thank them afterwards. But if you preempt it with, ‘I really appreciate you for answering my questions,’ it sorts of put them in that position of having to answer,” she says. “If the provider doesn’t respond in a favorable way, then honestly I think that makes the provider look stupid.”

A freelance writer based in Chicago with bylines at the Cut, Hazlitt, Paste Magazine, and more. Working on a book for Beacon Press.

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