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Questions Your Primary Care Doctor Wishes You’d Ask

Healthcare is teamwork, and your role as a patient includes asking questions that help your doctors diagnose illness, nudge you toward more healthful habits and ensure that you understand treatments. Asking questions also lets your doctor know you are proactive about your health and willing to make changes for the better.

So what questions should you ask? That may depend on the reason you are seeing a doctor, but here are some good starters to keep in mind for almost any medical visit.

Annual Physical Exam

You’re already showing you care about your health when you schedule and show up for your annual physical exam. Make the appointment even more helpful with questions like these:

  • What wellness tests should I have based on my sex, age and medical history? Tests are now available to screen for a wide array of existing and potential medical problems — including diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, so find out what those are and when you should have them.
  • How can I eat more healthfully? Instead of following fad diets, ask your primary care doctor to suggest an eating plan that will nourish your body and help you lose weight (if that’s your goal.)
  • How much and how hard should I exercise? Doctors love to hear that patients are interested in exercise. When you raise this issue, your doctor can guide you into a moderate workout routine that you know will be safe for your fitness level.
  • What immunizations do I need? Our parents kept us on track with required immunizations when we were children, but many adults fail to keep up with needed boosters and new vaccines to prevent dangerous diseases like COVID, flu, pneumonia and shingles.
  • What is my risk of developing heart disease? Don’t wait until you have a heart attack to find out if you have or are likely to develop heart disease, the No. 1 killer of American adults.  Early awareness allows time for lifestyle changes and medicines to keep your heart healthy.
  • How does my family history affect my health? While you can’t change your genetic makeup, you can be proactive if you have a family history of gene-linked diseases, including certain cancers, heart disease and diabetes.

Sensitive Questions

The more private the subject, the more difficult it may be to ask your doctor about it, which is why you should prepare and practice to discuss conditions that may be invisible upon physical exam. A good general frame for this type of question is, “I have a personal question I would like to ask you,” followed by a sensitive subject such as:

  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Sexuality
  • Incontinence
  • HIV/sexually transmitted disease
  • When to stop driving
  • Memory loss
  • Grief or depression

Before a Medical Test

Sometimes tests are required to complete a diagnosis: An X-ray will confirm a broken arm. A colonoscopy can look for cancer in the colon. A blood test will show evidence of a specific infection. If your doctor orders tests, here are some questions to ask:

  • Why is this test being done? This question allows your doctor to clarify why a test is needed.
  • Is this test essential to treatment? Is there an alternative way to confirm your diagnosis, or is confirmation even necessary before proceeding to treatment?
  • What steps are involved? What will happen during the testing procedure? How long will it take? Will you be unconscious, semi-conscious or fully conscious?
  • What specimen will be collected or examined? Blood? Saliva? Urine? Semen? Stool?
  • How should I prepare for this test? Some tests require an empty stomach. For others, you can’t eat, drink or smoke. Sometimes caffeine will be a no-no pre-test. Other times you will be told to stop taking your medicine.
  • Are there side effects? How should I expect to feel immediately after the test? A day after? A week after?
  • How long will it take to get results? How will I get the results? Times vary depending on the type of test, the urgency of the test, and how busy the testing lab is. Since waiting can be difficult, always ask this question so you know what to expect.
  • What will we know after the test? Will the test reveal the extent (or stage) of the disease or condition? Will it inform which among several treatment options to pursue?

After a Diagnosis

When you are sick or injured and heading to the doctor’s office for diagnosis and treatment, here are some good baseline questions to ask once your doctor knows what is wrong:

  • What is the name of my health problem? You’re going to need to know the medical term for your diagnosis. Write it down as it may include terms you are unfamiliar with.
  • Can you explain it to me in simple terms? Now that you know what doctors call your condition, find out what it means in words you can understand and share with others as needed.
  • What may have caused this condition? Will it be permanent? Were you exposed to a contagion? Did overuse cause an injury? Have you developed a hereditary condition? All will be good to know as you develop understanding of what is wrong.
  • How will this condition be treated? If permanent, what can I do to manage it? Will you need medicine? Physical therapy? Bed rest? Your doctor will explain your treatment carefully because unless you are hospitalized, it will be up to you to follow through on the treatment plan.
  • Where can I learn more about this condition? With so much information and misinformation on the internet, it’s good to ask your doctor to suggest reliable sources of accurate information. If one exists, you’ll probably be pointed to a national organization (the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Lung Association, for example.) The federal government also offers reliable information through websites for organizations like the National Institute of Health and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Clarifying Questions

No matter how hard a doctor tries to explain complex medical issues clearly, and no matter how hard you try to follow, it’s natural for misunderstandings to occur because the medical vocabulary is so specialized. That’s where these clarifying questions will come in handy at any medical visit:

  • I want to be sure I understand. Could you explain that again?
  • I did not understand that word. What does it mean?

You can also rephrase what your doctor said in your own words and then ask, “Is that correct?”

Remember, as the patient, you are an important part in this exchange of health care information, and it’s critical that you understand what you’ve been told.

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