Talking with Your Doctor

Asking Questions

Why Asking Questions is Important

Asking questions is key to good communication with your doctor. If you don't ask questions, your doctor may think you do not need or want more information. Asking questions helps your doctor know what is important to you. It also lets your doctor know when something he or she says is unclear.

There are many types of questions you may want to ask your doctor. For example, ask questions when you do not know the meaning or spelling of a word, like aneurysm or infarct. Also, it is important to ask questions when instructions are not clear. For example, what does taking medicine with food mean -- before, during, or after a meal?

(Watch this video to learn more about questions to ask your doctor. To enlarge the videos on this page, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner of the video screen. To reduce the videos after watching them, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)

Understand Your Diagnosis

Your diagnosis is what your doctor thinks is your health problem. Most times your doctor will make the diagnosis based on what you say are your symptoms and the results of a physical exam, lab tests, and other medical tests. Understanding your health problem can help you make decisions about what you would like to do about it. Also, if you know how the health problem may affect your life and activities and what may happen if the condition gets worse, you will be better able to deal with the problem.

Questions To Ask About Diagnosis

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor about your health problem.

  • What is the name of the condition? How do you spell it?
  • Why do you think I have this health problem? What may have caused it?
  • How long may this problem last? Will it be permanent?
  • How will this problem affect me? Will I need to change some of my activities?
  • Are there long-term effects of this problem?
  • Can my health problem be cured? How can it be treated or managed, made better?
  • How can I learn more about my condition?

Understand Your Medications

Your doctor may prescribe a medicine for your health problem. Make sure you know the name and spelling of the drug and understand why your doctor wants you to take it. Ask your doctor to write down how often and for how long you should take it. If you will need to get more of the medicine once you have used it up, ask how to get the medicine refilled.

Questions To Ask About Medications

  • What is the name of the medication?
  • What condition is it being prescribed for?
  • When and how often should I take the medication?
  • Should I take it at meals or between meals?
  • Do I need to drink a whole glass of water with it?
  • Are there foods, drugs, or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • What are the common side effects?
  • What should I pay attention to?
  • When will the medicine begin to work?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • Will I need a refill? How do I arrange that?

How the Medication May Affect You

Sometimes medicines affect older people differently than younger people. Let your doctor know if the medicine does not seem to be working or is causing you problems. If you want to stop taking a medicine, check with your doctor first.

Learn about medication side effects and get tips on how to avoid them.

(Watch this video to learn more about how to take medicines safely.)

Call to let your primary doctor know as soon as possible if another doctor prescribes a medication for you. Also, call to check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications. It may be helpful to keep a list of all the prescription and over-the-counter medicines you take and when you take them.

Your Pharmacist Is Also a Resource

Your pharmacist also can help answer your questions about medications, including what the label on the medicine bottle means. Also, if asked, your pharmacist can put your medicines in easy-to-open containers and may be able to use large-print labels.

Because the pharmacy keeps a record of the prescription medications you get there, it may be helpful to get all your prescriptions from the same pharmacy. That way, they have a complete record of all your prescription medicines.

Get more tips about taking medicine safely.

Understand Your Medical Tests

Sometimes doctors need to do blood tests, x-rays, or other procedures to find out what is wrong or to learn more about your medical condition. Some tests, such as Pap tests, mammograms, glaucoma tests, and screenings for prostate and colorectal cancer, are done regularly to check for hidden medical problems.

Questions To Ask About Medical Tests

Before you have a medical test, ask your doctor to explain

  • Why is the test being done?
  • What will it show about my health?
  • What do I need to do to get ready for the test?
  • How is the test done? What steps does the medical test involve?
  • Are there any dangers or side effects?
  • How will I find out the results of my test? How long will it take to get the results?
  • What will we know after the test?

For a printable checklist, see Questions To Ask During A Medical Appointment [PDF] or [HTML version]

Getting Your Test Results

When the results of the test are ready, make sure the doctor tells you what they are and explains what they mean. You may want to ask your doctor for a written copy of the test results. If the test is done by someone other than your regular doctor, like a specialist, ask to have the results sent to your primary doctor.

Remembering Information

No matter what your age, it is easy to forget a lot of what your doctor says. Also, sometimes what your doctor says may be hard to understand. As your doctor gives you information about your health, it is a good idea to make sure that you understand it and that you will be able to remember it.

(Watch this video to learn more about how to remember your conversations with your doctor.) .

When Something Is Unclear

Always ask your doctor about anything he or she says that seems unclear. You might say, "I want to make sure I understand. Could you explain a little more?" or "I didn't understand that word. What does it mean?" You may also find it helpful to repeat back to your doctor what he or she says using your own words and ask if you are correct.

Ask About Written or Visual Aids

Ask if your doctor has any written information or DVDs, CDs, cassettes, or videotapes about your health condition and/or treatment. Also, ask your doctor about other places where you can get more information to help you understand, such as websites or health organizations.

Sometimes your doctor may want you to talk to another member of the health care team about your condition. These people may be better able to explain the health problem and help you make decisions about what to do about it. These people, such as nurses and physician assistants, may also be able to spend more time with you than your doctor.

For a printable checklist, see a list of federal health and aging information resources [PDF] or [HTML version]

Take Notes

Taking notes during your doctor visit can help you remember what you and your doctor talk about. Take along a notepad and pen or pencil, and write down your doctor's main points or ask your doctor to write them down for you. If you cannot write while the doctor is talking to you, make notes in the waiting room after your visit. Some doctors may allow you to audiotape record your visit if you do not want to, or cannot, take notes.

Follow Up for Clarification

If you are not sure about what your doctor said to do about your health after you get home, call his or her office. A nurse or other staff member can check with your doctor and call you back. You can also ask if your doctor or someone else on the health care team you have talked to has an e-mail address you can use to send questions.