Seven Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Seriously, bring this list to your next appointment.
Forging a strong partnership with a caring and committed primary care physician, or PCP, is one of the most important first steps you can take in protecting your health. This can be hard to do when our doctors have less time than ever. It’s helpful to have a list of questions that get right to the most important things you need to monitor. Here are 7 questions to ask at your next primary care visit:
1. How can I reduce my risk of heart disease?
Heart disease is the №1 cause of death, killing 1 in 4 Americans every year — and yet it’s one of the most preventable conditions. If you have a family history of heart problems (a parent or sibling suffered a heart attack or other sudden cardiac event) your PCP needs to carefully monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure. If you find that diet and exercise alone aren’t improving your risk factors, your PCP should discuss medication options — such as statins or blood pressure drugs — that might be right for you.
2. How are we going to catch cancer before it catches me?
Cancer is the second-most common cause of death in the U.S. — but the earlier it is detected, the easier it is to treat. Your PCP can develop a screening program for you based on your age, lifestyle, family medical history, and any known genetic risks. For example, if your mother or sisters had breast cancer, you may want to: 1. Be tested for the BRCA genes; 2. Start getting mammograms at an earlier age; 3. Have conversations with experts about your preventative-treatment options. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a relatively healthy man with no family history of prostate cancer, you probably won’t need PSA testing until you’re much older. Talk to your PCP about your family’s medical histories and share your concerns.
3. What’s the latest news on my condition?
Doctors may be the only professionals who don’t get paid to do research. And with all of the other pressures they experience, many don’t have the time or the resources to stay current on the latest developments. As a result, it can take years for better surgical techniques, medical procedures, and drugs to become the norm because not every one is in the know.
“In my primary care practice, I’ll see a new patient come in, and they are on the same blood pressure medication they started in 1978,” notes Dallas internist Dr. Carrie Carter. “Some of those drugs are tried and true, and if they are working for you, it may make sense to stay with them. But, for example, if a patient’s blood pressure isn’t that well controlled, I know we can do better. We have drugs now that can control blood pressure and protect your kidneys against the effects of diabetes if you also have that. But when your doctor’s not reading, they may miss things and potentially impact your overall health.”
At the least, if your current prescriptions are not controlling your symptoms or you are dealing with unpleasant side effects, don’t hesitate to reach out to your PCP and just ask, “What’s new?”
4. What medications can we stop or minimize?
Overtreatment is no small problem. When it comes to elderly patients or those with complicated issues, it’s not uncommon for someone to be on several different medications — some that are redundant or even harmful in combination — prescribed by physicians who don’t know what the others are doing because no one is coordinating care. It’s up to you to let your doctors know about all the drugs and supplements you are taking. Dr. Michael Davidson, an expert in heart disease prevention at the University of Chicago’s School of Medicine says that one of the first things he always asks his patients when he sees them is “What things we can stop or take away?” If your physician doesn’t take the same approach, it’s totally fine to ask: Do I really need to be on these drugs? Can we lessen my dosage?
5. Is there anything I should be doing differently to live a longer life?
Everybody knows that lifestyle decisions affect our health — but they have a far more influential role than most people realize. Your doctor’s office should be a safe place for you to talk openly and ask questions like: Is my weight a problem? I’ve been stressed out at work and feeling a lot of pressure at home, am I doing damage? Is it okay for someone in my condition to have three glasses of wine with dinner every night? Give your PCP the opportunity to help you achieve a greater balance. Share your concerns with him or her, and ask for guidance.
6. Something’s been bothering me… Can we talk?
Your PCP knows his or her job is to monitor your vitals — weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. — but just as important is gauging your psychological state. Stress, exhaustion, and environmental factors can wreak havoc on your physical health. When your doctor asks, “How are you doing?” Tell her. And let her help you to set goals that will get you back on track. Most PCPs became doctors because they want to effect real changes in a patient’s life. In fact, in a 2014 Physician’s Foundation survey 79% of doctors cited “patient relationships” as the most satisfying factor about medical practice. So cross the divide, take a few minutes to tell your PCP what’s going on in your life, and make them see you as a human being — not just a collection of vital signs.
7. Can I get a copy of my records?
Under HIPAA laws, you have a right to receive a copy of your medical records from all of your physicians and hospitals. Sometimes a simple records request can become a transformative health event. Be the keeper of your medical data, and read through it to learn more about yourself. Is all of the information accurate? Is your name spelled right? Allergies and medical conditions are clearly indicated? If you see mistakes, let your doctors know and be sure your file gets corrected. Do your lab reports show abnormal findings that you were unaware of? Ask your PCP what they mean — and what you should do about them.
For steps to finding the right PCP, and more ways to partner with your doctor to make sure you’re both aiming for the best possible health outcomes, read Part I: How to Be Prepared, in The Patient’s Playbook.