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Medical questions to ask at a doctor's appointment

Medical questions
Our guide to medical questions you should ask during a doctor's appointment is designed to make sure you and your family member come away from a visit with all the information you need to better manage your healthcare.
A visit to the doctor, where you are told a great many things that you may not understand, can be confusing for anyone. Older people in particular often feel intimidated when they talk to a doctor and hesitate to ask the doctor questions because they believe it’s impolite.  
But not asking questions can lead to medical errors with serious consequences. For instance, misunderstanding directions on how to take a prescription or not comprehending the risks of a procedure can lead to a troubled outcome that a simple question could have avoided.
Don't hesitate to speak up when you don't understand something. Doctors aren't always aware that they haven't explained something in terms you understand ...and they do want you to understand. When in doubt, repeat what the doctor has told you and ask if you've got it right. 
If you are accompanying an older friend or family member to an appointment, you can help by taking along a notepad and writing down the doctor's answers.
For more information on how to be an informed healthcare consumer, check out The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) website which offers consumers lists of questions to ask doctors.

Key questions to ask

Here are some key questions to ask when you talk to a doctor, based on AHRQ’s lists, organized under four common areas of concern: 
  1. Diagnosis
    If you've been told you have a specific medical condition, ask:
    • Do you have any reading materials about this condition?
    • Do you have any DVDs or CDs that I could review?
    • Are there any written instructions I should follow? 
  2. Medications
    Bring along a list of all the medications you are taking, and ask:

    If a new drug is prescribed, ask the same questions, but also ask how to spell the drug and what it is for. Write it down!

  3. Tests
    If the doctor orders a blood test, x-ray, scan or any other diagnostic procedure, ask:
    • What are these tests for?  
    • Are there any risks to these tests?
    • When will you know the results?
    • How will you let me know the results?
    • If I haven't heard from you, who should I call at your office to find out the results?
      Don’t assume that no news is good news or accept the answer, "We'll get back to you if there's a problem." You need to know either way.   
  4. Surgery
    If surgery is recommended, ask:
    • What is this surgery for?
    • Can you explain what's done during the surgery and could you draw or show a picture of it?
    • Is there an alternative to the surgery that I could try first? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
    • What are the possible complications, given my age and health condition?
    • What will happen if I wait or don't have this surgery?
    • How long will my recovery be and what can I expect during that time? 
    • Do you have any suggestions for me to get a second opinion?
At the end of every office visit, ask the doctor to tell you the two or three most important things you should remember or do. Write them down!

The bottom line

  • Visits to the doctor's office can be confusing for an older person, who may feel embarrassed or too intimidated to ask a doctor questions when they don’t understand what they’re being told.
  • Bringing along a list of key medical questions to ask makes it easier to take an active role and to develop a good relationship with your doctor. This typically leads to better patient care and outcomes; what both you and your doctor want.
  • For more lists and information about asking your doctor the right medical questions, go to The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) website.



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