Get Answers From Your Doctor

Ever had trouble getting your doctor to answer your questions? A simple Google search shows that you are not alone. Just searching on the phrase “get answers from your doctor” returns over 900 million entries.

So what do you do when your questions aren’t answered? Learn new strategies.

After reading this blog post, you will know:

  1. The 7 roadblocks you may face and how to get around them
  2. Why your questions aren’t answered
  3. How to ask questions your doctor will answer

Why do you need this information? Because you can use it immediately to help yourself improve your medical care. While the post talks about “doctors,” the information applies to your interactions with almost all healthcare professionals.

Just click here for tips on how to ask those questions.

My Story

A few years ago I had pneumonia 5 times in a year and was hospitalized each time. During one illness I developed sepsis. During another my body overreacted to the pneumonia and made me even sicker. I was desperate for a solution that would stop this cycle.

I arranged to see a specialist who ordered some tests before my appointment. When I saw the specialist, the specialist did a monologue on unrelated issues as I was asking questions during my very brief appointment. My questions were ignored.

Not only that, but the specialist wasn’t even going to show me the test results!

Finally when I asked what my test results showed, the specialist very grudgingly looked up the results. The last sentence before the end of the appointment, was a summary of my results. The specialist then left the room. 

The specialist technically did their work but left me feeling alone, unheard and confused about what to do.

So I changed doctors. The second specialist had reviewed my record before the appointment, listened to me, answered my questions and suggested something that I followed up on. What a relief!

Your takeaway: you have choices that can help you get better medical care. Let’s talk about 

some of the roadblocks you face as you try to get your doctor to answer questions.

The Roadblocks Are Real

The list below identifies some but not all of the roadblocks you will run into as you work to get your questions answered.

1. You don’t think you can communicate with your doctor. 

This is the #1 roadblock for a reason. Before the idea of a doctor-patient partnership took hold, concerns such as those below kept patients from asking questions. And for many people they still do. 

  • You feel intimidated, either by your doctor or the environment, say that of a busy hospital.
  • You are worried that asking questions of your doctor may be seen as a challenge to their knowledge and authority.
  • You are worried you’ll be labeled a difficult patient or receive some form of retribution like those mentioned in this article: Questioning the Doctor, Challenging a God.

2. There is too little time in a medical appointment. Sometimes in clinic settings your appointments can be as brief as 15 minutes or less, a part of which your doctor may spend in updating themselves on your most recent medical issues.

3. You forgot the questions you wanted to ask of your doctor as soon as you started the appointment.

4. You receive some very emotionally charged news, such as a cancer diagnosis, and you focus on that upsetting information without being able to listen to let alone understand your treatment options and your doctor’s recommendations.

5. You have THAT doctor, an authoritarian who believes they know best. That doctor doesn’t listen. No questioning of information, options, care plan is allowed. 

6. You don’t understand the doctor’s answers or can’t hear them and are ashamed to admit it, so you nod your head.

7. Your doctor is giving off signals that it’s time to wrap up the appointment. An example? The stand up and shake hands (or bump elbows these days) routine.

These last three roadblocks are woven into the fabric of our society and I am super passionate about seeing them overcome.

If you want to find out how you can help, you can go to such nonpartisan consumer healthcare reform advocacy groups as Families USA, an advocacy group for healthcare consumers, or Community Catalyst, a national advocacy organization that works at state and local levels to ensure that all consumers can influence the decisions that affect their health.

There are many other healthcare advocacy organizations focused on the changes needed to remove the roadblocks below, some of which may be more familiar to you.

1. Doctors can have implicit or explicit biases based on gender, color, sexual orientation, sizes, and age, factors over which you have no control. And for older adults, ageism can result in either undertreatment or overtreatment.

2. Social class, education level, ethnicity and whether you can speak English are also factors that can create bias for some doctors. 

3. And then there are the health insurance and economic concerns, especially for low-income patients. Being able to get care for a medical issue may be out-of-reach financially for those who have no health insurance and are choosing between food or medications, or even food and shelter. 

It is so crucial to identify and acknowledge the societal roadblocks above because they affect availability and quality of healthcare for so many individuals, families and communities in America. For now in this blog post we will just be focusing on those first 7 roadblocks over which you have some control and how to remove them.

Bulldozing the Roadblocks

1. Choose your doctor carefully.

As Jean Gilbert, a medical anthropologist, points out:

“There are some very general things that patients can do that can enhance their interaction with doctors. The doctor/patient relationship is one of the most lopsided relationships there is because of the patient’s inherent vulnerability and the doctor’s level of very critical (to the pt.) expertise. It’s a difficult dynamic. The patient is in an intimidated position and some docs, knowingly or unknowingly, may take advantage of that.”

But how can you find the doctor who will listen to you and answer your questions?

Dr. Gilbert has several recommendations. “Firstly, if you have a choice, choose a female doc, at least for your primary care or gyn. They listen better. Of course, this is a generalization but it’s pretty accurate. Women are genetically set up to empathize. And, if you are a woman, having a female [gynecologist] means that there are a lot of things you don’t have to explain. Truly.”

“If possible, choose a doctor of your own ethnicity, but especially if English isn’t your native language. Even if they don’t speak your native language fluently, there are a lot of things about you that are important that they probably already know.”

She goes on to say, “I think it’s important for patients to be able to choose their doctors and to let the docs know they were specifically chosen. This isn’t always possible but many practices and health plans have brief bios of their docs on line. I always say something like “So you did your residency at UCSF. That must have been great,” or “ You’re new to Santa Barbara. How do you like it?” That lets the doc know that they were smart enough to look at their background and made a choice. Or even if they didn’t have a choice, they made the effort to find out about them. It has the effect of leveling the playing field a little. And they do remember.

Same with if a new-to-you doctor begins their first visit by calling [you] by [your] first name, let her/him know whether that’s ok or if [you’d] rather be called something else. That’s the pts. prerogative, and by asserting it, [you’ve] made the interaction a little less lopsided.”

2. Plan for your appointment.

When you are being seen in a clinic setting, there is very little time for you to provide information, have questions answered and get a care plan from your doctor. The more you can do to prepare, the better your chances of a productive appointment. Applying this to asking questions is discussed in the How To section below. Preparation is a very effective bulldozer.

3. Bring someone else with you to your appointment.

In Jean Gilbert’s view,  “…advice to take someone along if the visit is especially critical or complex is excellent. Of course, they should be introduced. Helpful if they take notes. This may also have the subtle effect of changing the lopsided dynamic [of the doctor-patient relationship].”

Bringing a family member, friend or advocate to your appointment can be very supportive. Not only will you have an “extra pair of ears” but there are other ways in which they can be essential. As an example, being able to hear answers to questions you stopped thinking about after you heard the diagnosis is very helpful.

4. Always, always write down your questions. 

Then don’t forget to bring them with you! More about that later, but it will keep the questions you want to get answered from flying out the window as your appointment begins.

5. Decide if you prefer doctors who “tell you what to do.” 

Some patients find this authoritarian style comforting. If you have a different preference, then this KevinMD article has a suggestion for you: “if your doc blatantly dodges your question after multiple direct inquiries you might just be stuck with a god-complex prick. This is good to know so that you can find another physician ASAP who works well with you.”

6. Be ready to ask that your doctor’s answers be repeated.

Repeating an answer can include being restated, reworded or even said more loudly so that you can understand them before you leave the exam room. This is another reason bringing someone else can be helpful.

7. Ask your doctor how they want to be contacted for additional questions.

They may prefer that you use an online patient portal such as MyChart to ask more questions. Sometimes they recognize that people have trouble with or lack access to the internet and suggest that you call the office and leave a message. Now with the use of telehealth appointments you may even be asked to schedule a telehealth appointment with another staff member such as a nurse practitioner.

Why don’t your questions get answered???

There are many reasons but they can be roughly divided into two categories: those you have some control over and those over which you have little to no control.

Much of what you think is under your control will depend upon multiple factors like:

  • how the questions are worded,
  • your doctor’s ability to listen,
  • your education level and familiarity with English,
  • and the issues that are going to be covered at your appointment.

You may have an unsatisfying appointment. That does not mean there is a failure on your part. It is far too easy to assume responsibility when things don’t go right and sometimes you are made to feel that way through the dynamic at work in your appointment. Remember, this is a two-way street. Both people in the conversation have responsibilities to each other to understand. 

I stress this because it is all too easy to believe you were to blame for not getting what you needed out of the appointment, but it is not always your fault. Here are a few suggestions for getting yourself ready for a more effective appointment:

  • Plan ahead about what questions you need to have answered.
  • Consider the amount of time available in your appointment.
  • Write down your questions.
  • Make sure your questions are clearly stated.

Probably the majority of the reasons lies mostly outside your control. They are really about your relationship with your doctor (or other healthcare provider). We all have different attitudes, approaches, personalities and skill sets independent of any of the bias-inducing characteristics identified under Roadblocks above. The trick sometimes is that your unique personality may sometimes be at odds with that of your doctor. 

So how can you adapt? Consider identifying what type of patient you are so you can understand some of the dynamics at play in your relationship with your doctor. 

  • You may be passive and reluctant to challenge your doctor. This approach will not serve you well in getting questions answered. So if this is you, consider bringing an advocate with you to all medical appointments. 
  • You may be a researcher-type who prepares for your appointment with lots of material to review. You may have strong beliefs about your health status or treatment options. Being informed is important. However, you may be unintentionally antagonizing your doctor, overwhelming them with information or spending time in your appointment that might better be used to discuss treatment options. So unless you are getting a consultation from another doctor, consider narrowing your focus and being open to approaches you may not have considered.
  • You may be assertive and feel comfortable with asking questions of your doctor. Yet you still don’t believe your doctor is hearing you or giving you all the information you need to make decisions. And when you follow up with an additional question, it may go unanswered. 
    • Consider asking to schedule an appointment that is longer in duration so your doctor may have more time to feel comfortable providing the level of detail you want. 
    • You may also consider asking if you can make a separate appointment just to talk about what’s been happening because you do not feel heard nor are you getting the details for which you have asked.
  • You may be one of those patients who stays informed about your health challenges using reliable sources and is determined to be a partner in your healthcare. If this is you, be aware that you will likely first be met with some resistance from your doctor who may have a  very different idea about the doctor-patient relationship. 
    • They may assume that your information came from  Dr. Google or be frustrated at your lack of  understanding about what may seem very basic ideas to the doctor. 
    • Your doctor wants to be understood when they give detailed answers as well, so make sure you are willing to listen after each question and not just keep talking unnecessarily. 
    • Sometimes this relationship is also skewed by past experiences when patients have reacted poorly to the news that there is no clear answer in the research. 
    • In this sort of relationship, it may just take time to change a doctor’s perspective on what doctor-patient relationship they are willing to have with you. 

Sometimes there is absolutely nothing you can do to shift the relationship. If this is the case, change doctors if that is possible for you.

How to Ask Questions That Your Doctor Will Answer; Your 6 Steps to Better Results

Believe it or not, the way you ask your questions to your doctor can determine whether or not they actually get answered. We’ve talked a lot about the roadblocks that can sometimes hinder us from having a good doctor-patient relationship, like they did for me during my years combatting pneumonia.

We’ve also talked about how to address, or bulldoze, some of these roadblocks, as well as understanding why doctors sometimes don’t answer our questions.

All of that gets us to what we DO have control over, and what we CAN do to better get the answers we are looking for.

  1. Know that you have the right to get your questions answered. But accept that the answers may not be what you want to hear, easily understood, or clear.
  2. From KevinMD “The answer is really very simple: “Don’t accept a non-answer answer from your doctor on a question that really matters to you!”
  3. Prepare ahead of time.
    • Be sure you understand the purpose of the appointment.
    • Decide what questions you have. Brainstorm.
    • Write your questions down, all of them.
    • If you can, inform yourself about issues likely to come up during your appointment. This may lead to further questions.
  4. Limit your final questions to no more than 4. Why???
    • You identify the questions most important to you and to which you absolutely need answers.
    • Your doctor will know what you want answered no matter what.
    • You are working with your doctor to make sure those questions get answered during the appointment.
    • Often the questions you have brainstormed can be asked with a few more general questions.
    • You may be able to ask more specific questions as your doctor answers the broader question.
  5. Use 2-part questions where helpful.
    • In the first part of the question, state your concern. “I am worried about the cause of my low energy.” This gives your doctor context with which to help answer your question.
    • In the second part of the question, ask your quesion. “What do you think could be responsible for this?” This gives your doctor the basic question you want answered. Other more specific questions such as “Do you think it could be my thyroid?” or “Do you think I have cancer?”, will be covered in answering the basic question.
    • Avoid “yes or no” questions. The answers may not be helpful.
  6. Plan your strategy.
    • Decide whether you will bring someone else with you.
    • Put together your written questions, to be handed to the doctor at the very beginning of the appointment. Make another copy for yourself so you can follow along and make sure your questions have been answered.
    • If you bring someone else with you, make a copy of your questions for them.
      • Brief them on what worries you and what you want to know.
      • Ask them to help make sure your doctor answers your questions.
      • Have them take notes for you.
      • Ask them to help make sure you understand your care plan.
  7. Make the most of your appointment.
    • Now you know most of what you want from your appointment.
    • You’ve handed the doctor your list of questions.
    • As this article in KevinMD says: Be reasonable.
      • “If you have to have the guts to ask the question a second or even third time most docs will do their best to insure you get an answer that makes sense to you. Force the issue!
      • “Okay doc, now I need you to explain that again in plain English.”
      • Most doctors will work hard to get you an answer…”
      • “Don’t assume that the full answer is always going to make things more clear.”
      • “You shouldn’t use the nuclear I-won’t-leave-till-I-get-an-answer option for every question that pops into your head.”
    • Your appointment time is generally limited. Keep that in mind. You really don’t want to be that patient.
    • The remaining question you ask either during the discussion or toward the end of your appointment: “What do you recommend or suggest I do and why?”
      • Most of the time your doctor will have started to answer it before you ask, since the answer to it is your care plan.
      • Sometimes, though, it helps to have this question ready to go.
  8. The appointment is over and you have more questions.
    • Email your doctor through MyChart or similar online patient portals to ask the questions.
    • Email your doctor directly if they have given you access and permission.
    • Call your doctor’s office and leave a message that includes the questions.
    • Make a follow-up appointment, say a telehealth appointment.

What have you learned? What to do to get results!

  1. You’ve read about roadblocks and how to bulldoze through them.
  2. You’ve read about some of the reasons your questions aren’t answered.
  3. And you have the 6 steps to getting your questions answered.

What’s next? You can get a useful guide that summarizes some of the information here to help you with those questions. Click here to receive 5 Tips on How to Ask Questions.

As always, stay healthy,

Catherine Callahan

Serving Your Healthcare Advocacy Needs in Santa Barbara, CA; Central Coast of CA; Southern CA; and the United States

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