If you’re not particularly ecstatic about visiting your doctor—either because it’s time for your annual check-up or because you’re feeling under the weather—you’re certainly not alone. Not many of us enjoy the process of requesting time off of work only to sit in a cold, stiff waiting room, and plopping our behinds on an even colder examination table to get poked, prodded and grilled with questions we don’t feel like answering. But the fact is, you’re only showing up for these appointments, as uncomfortable as they may be, for your own benefit.
“Your health is a team effort, in which you, not the doctor, play the most important role, so communication is key,” Joe Alton, MD, Life Fellow of the American College of OB/GYN, says. And of the best ways to communicate with your doctor or alternative health care provider is by asking questions.
Here are 10 key questions you should never be afraid to ask your doc, ever:
What can I do to keep myself healthy?
People often think this is silly question, as patients often assume that they have no role in their health care when they most certainly do. It’s important to ask your doctor what specific preventative health measures are important to your health. This can range from losing the extra 10 pounds you have been carrying around to taking a baby aspirin to prevent heart attack or stroke. “Simply ask your doctor what you can do more or less of, or what you can add to your lifestyle to enhance your health,” Kameelah Phillips, MD, an OB/GYN in New York City, explains.
When will my sadness or anxiety end? Is it normal?
Millions of Americans suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental illness in silence, and there’s a significant connection between mental and physical health that can be missed at your annual doctor’s visit.
“Doctors appreciate knowing if you’re suffering mentally or emotionally so we can direct you to the proper resources and help,” Dr. Phillips explains. “If you feel sad, anxious or depressed a lot of the time, to the point where it’s affecting your life and relationships, your doctor can help you figure out what may be going on medically and recommend appropriate therapists or support groups you might benefit from.”
Why are you prescribing me this medicine?
Just like your schedule is overloaded, so is your doc’s. In an attempt to finish your visit and move on to her next patient, she might overlook explaining something you have every right to know—like why she chose to prescribe you a certain medication. The answer might be something simple like, “You have high cholesterol and this drug will help lower it.” But it could encourage her to bring up another medication option that you could choose between with different side effects and ingredients.
“Starting a new medicine should always be taken seriously,” Dr. Alton explains. “Doctors themselves are wary when their physician puts them on something new, so it’s perfectly reasonable for you to understand the pros and cons of any medication they’re prescribing you.”
What will this medicine do to me?
All drugs may have side effects, so you should be aware of them to help determine whether or not it’s a medication you’re comfortable taking. Sometimes, side effects are unrelated to the medicine’s primary purpose. For example, antibiotics could give you diarrhea and aspirin could cause bruising due to its blood-thinning effect. And in some cases, the side effect is a reason to use the medicine.
For example, Ritodrine, an IV asthma medicine, was found to coincidentally relax uterine muscle. As such, it was used for a time to stop premature labor. “Asking what the medication actually does in your body to achieve the desired goal will help you understand how your body works and give your physician a chance to show off his knowledge,” Dr. Alton says. It’s also a good reason to ask if the medication will interfere with other medications you might be on. Drugs can interact with each other significantly in some cases, so don’t be afraid to give full disclosure (even with recreational drugs).
Would my condition improve if I changed my diet or lifestyle?
Believe it or not, just because a doctor prescribes you a medication does not mean that you absolutely need it to survive. “Many times, doctors rely too heavily on doling out prescription medications to their patients instead of instructing them on how to live a healthier lifestyle, which can then remedy most, if not all, of their health ailments,” Dr. Alton says. “When people are heavier or overweight, they tend to have blood pressure problems and smokers tend to have less stamina and more congestion.” A good doctor wants you to be a participant in maintaining your health, so it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask.
What is the purpose of this test or examination?
One of main reasons people fear going to the doctors in the first place is their tendency to order tests and procedures. If a doctor asks you to do a test out of the blue, ask what he’s looking for or worried he might find? “Don’t be hesitant to demand a full explanation of what the test is all about and what conditions might be identified by the results,” Dr. Alton says.
Often, a doctor will let you know why you should take a test, but not clue you into all the risks involved. That’s usually on a consent form you sign before the procedure. Instead of bringing a magnifying glass to the clinic to help you read the fine print, ask what complications can occur and how often your practitioner has seen them.
What happens if I don’t take this test, get this procedure, or take this medication?
Patients are sometimes anxious about taking tests, having procedures or starting new medications. Some are even afraid to reveal skepticism or mistrust with the medical establishment and think they might offend their doctor. But it’s important for you to understand what the potential risks and benefits of having, delaying or declining a treatment your doctor suggests. It will help your care team address your specific concerns and improve communication.
Are there risks to this test?
Tests might be necessary, but they’re not always without risks. “CAT scans of the chest and abdomen, for example, give the equivalent radiation exposure of having 100 standard chest x-rays,” Dr. Alton explains. Cardiac catheterization is a test where they check for blocked coronary arteries (which is the cause of heart attacks), and during this test, they run a line and infuse dye into your coronaries to look for blockage all the way from an artery in your thigh. This procedure can actually cause a heart attack about 1-2 percent of the time, so you should be aware of how a test’s results will impact your treatment. Will anything change as a result of having the test done? If a test does not affect your doctor’s plan of treatment, is it really necessary? All important things for you to know.
Is this new smell I’m experiencing normal?
It’s important to understand that changes in odor, specifically vaginal odor and discharge, can be an important sign of reproductive health. ”Discharge that’s green, yellow, itchy or malodorous (read: foul-smelling) can be an indication of an infection,” Dr. Phillips explains. “Infections, especially sexually transmitted infections, can have a negative impact on a woman’s reproductive health and undiagnosed infections can leave to pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and pregnancy-related complications.”
Will you help me?
If you’re being abused (physically, emotionally, financially), do not be afraid to tell your doctor. Your doctor is your advocate and knows their office is a safe space. “Many women (and kids and men) who are abused are afraid to say something or ask for help, because they assume that they are stuck and that their situation is futile,” Dr. Shainhouse says. “They’re afraid their abuser will find out that they said something and hurt them more or that they’ll be judged for ‘allowing’ this to happen to them.” Abuse is never your fault. Your doctor might ask you about abuse if they notice physical signs on your body. If they don’t, do mention it yourself. If you can’t be alone with the doctor because the perpetrator is with you, signal or message anyone in the office that you need help.