An Oncologist Tells You What to Ask Your Doctor

We’re fond of the old saying, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” It’s not always true, but we still like it. Especially when it pertains to a medical appointment.

Writing on, Dr. Naoto Ueno, an oncologist and cancer survivor, suggests questions you should ask your doctor during an appointment. As Ueno says, you’re entitled to ask any health-care provider anything that relates to your care, but he’s got a few lines of inquiry that will get the most from a limited amount of time.

First: Respect the fact that doctors don’t have unlimited time. Other patients are waiting for their attention, and the medical industrial complex does not compensate them to play 20 questions. If your situation is critical, you will get more time. If you don’t, it’s time to find another doctor.

It’s OK to be angry-about your bad luck, the long wait for an appointment, the mix-up with a prescription … whatever. But it’s not OK to express anger without also offering constructive criticism of how to improve the situation.

That said, Ueno counsels you to:

  • Prepare questions in advance of your appointment.
  • Before launching into them, ask if this is the best time to ask questions, and if not, when would be a better time.
  • If you don’t understand something, say so. Don’t nod your head if you don’t understand, or the doctor will assume that you do, and will keep talking. Doctors have a tendency to use professional jargon-if you’re not getting it, say so. Some patients are well-informed medical consumers, so if it seems like the doctor is dumbing things down, ask for a more detailed explanation.
  • Restate something to ensure you comprehended it; say: “My understanding is X; do I understand this correctly?” “Did we agree to X, then Y, then Z?”

Here are some questions, Ueno says, that aren’t helpful:

  • “Am I going to die?” Nobody knows. With some illnesses, it might be hard not to ask, but try another approach to learning what you can: “How long do you think my symptoms/illness might last?” “When do you think the tumor might shrink?” “When can I return home or to work?” Doctors generally can’t predict overall outcomes, but they’re pretty good at estimating some concrete aspects.
  • “What would you do if this were your loved one?” Although this question can be productive in some situations, beware unless you’re very familiar with the personal values of your doctor; you might be misled into a decision that might not satisfy you later.
  • “I hate clinical trials/chemotherapy/some other treatment.” A doctor might not mention a possible treatment in the future, even if you have changed your mind. If you do have a change of mind about any aspect of your care, make sure your doctor knows.
  • “I hate so-and-so.” Most doctors are put in a tough position when patients criticize their fellow professionals. They might fear that you will criticize them to someone else. If you have a problem with another health-care provider’s care, be specific about the problem, not the person. The exception, of course, is if someone committed malpractice, failed to acknowledge a mistake or refused to communicate. Those people are unprofessional and do not deserve to be protected.

If you don’t know what to ask, a doctor might think you have little interest in what’s happening. See our blog post “Questions Patients Should Always Ask.”

And always remember, no matter the nature of your questions, be nice. Doctors are human beings who respond better to people who treat them with respect. Just like you.

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