7 Questions to Ask Your Doctor When You’re Sick
By DR. MALCOLM THALER
Before you even see your doctor, do your homework: Prepare for your visit by writing down all the potentially relevant facts of your illness. Don't worry if some prove unimportant -- your doctor will figure out what matters and what doesn't. Details to include: when your symptoms began, how they began, how your condition has worsened, improved or otherwise changed and what you or other health care professionals may have done to treat it. Bring your notes with you to your appointment -- a sick visit is not a closed-book exam!
Once your doctor has examined you, make sure you ask these questions so you know the whole picture:
1. What exactly is my diagnosis? Your doctor may know right away what you have, or he or she may have a list of possible diagnoses (a differential diagnosis). Make sure you understand the terminology. If you don't know what something means, ask.
2. Why do I need these tests? If your doctor has ordered various laboratory tests or imaging studies, such as an X-ray or CT scan, make sure you know why they have been ordered. If they aren't going to affect your treatment, they may not be necessary -- and they can quickly become expensive.
3. Why do I need this treatment? Perhaps your doctor has told you that you have bronchitis and has prescribed an antibiotic. However, almost all cases of acute bronchitis are viral and will not respond to an antibiotic, so why should you take one? Don't be confrontational -- your doctor has your best interests at heart, but he or she may be prescribing something just so you don't leave the office empty-handed. That's not good medicine, and you shouldn't take anything that isn't clearly indicated for your particular problem.
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4. What are the side effects of this treatment? Let's say you've been prescribed an antibiotic for pneumonia (which would be appropriate in this case). All antibiotics have potential side effects, and you should know what they are. That way you won't wake up at 2 a.m. wondering why you have a rash or an upset stomach.
5. Will this treatment interact with other medications I'm on? This is an important and often-overlooked issue. Many medication problems are caused by the interaction of one drug with another. Make sure your doctor knows everything you're taking, even over-the-counter supplements and herbal remedies (all of these have the potential for side effects and dangerous interactions), and make sure that any new treatment is safe to take with all your other medications.
When it comes to drugs, there's no reason to take an expensive brand-name drug if an inexpensive generic alternative is available. Pharmaceutical companies push their trade-name drugs on doctors, and a few days of free samples may quickly translate into a very expensive commitment if ongoing treatment is needed. Cost is important to everyone: Don't be shy about asking about what a particular test or medication costs and if there are cheaper, equivalent alternatives available.
6. When will I get better? Every illness is different, and everyone responds to treatment differently, but your doctor should be able to share some insights. Some diseases are acute and run their course quickly, while others persist or may even be present for the rest of your life. For example, if your cholesterol is high despite a healthy diet and adequate exercise, you may need to go on a cholesterol-lowering drug forever, whereas many illnesses (particularly infectious ones) are treatable in just a few days and run a reasonably predictable course.
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Knowing what to expect is important. Many patients with an upper-respiratory infection and cough will call their doctors after several days, wondering why their cough isn't better and perhaps even demanding an antibiotic. However, if they knew that the average respiratory cough lasts two to three weeks, they'd be less likely to insist on treatment that won't help (and that could even be harmful).
7. When should I come back to be re-evaluated? For many acute illnesses like sore throats and stomachaches, the answer is: Only if you don't get better in a reasonable amount of time (and make sure you know what that is). For others, such as hypertension or diabetes or heart disease, your doctor will want to see you again to assess your progress and adjust your treatment if necessary. If follow-up is needed, don't leave the office without an appointment for a future date.
With a little preparation and these few questions, you can make sure that your visit to your physician is efficient, educational and effective. Almost all doctors appreciate a well-informed and curious patient. Good communication is key to good medical outcomes.
Readers -- Do you ever feel uncertain or confused after a doctor visit? Do you prepare a list of questions or symptoms before a doctor visit? Do you feel like you get enough information from your doctor? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Malcolm Thaler, M.D., is a physician at One Medical Group. He enjoys being on the front lines of patient care and managing diagnostic and therapeutic challenges with a compassionate, integrative approach that stresses close doctor-patient collaboration. He is the author and chief editor of several best-selling medical textbooks and online resources and has extensive expertise in managing a wide range of issues, including the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and sports injuries.
Thaler graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, received his M.D. from Duke University and completed his residency in internal medicine at Harvard's New England Deaconess Hospital and Temple University Hospital. He joined One Medical from his national award-winning internal medicine practice in Pennsylvania and was an attending physician at The Bryn Mawr Hospital since 1986. He is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.