Talking with Your Doctor

After a Diagnosis

Before you can make a decision about your care, you first need to understand your diagnosis and the different treatment options that may improve your health. It is important to know what each treatment involves and what it will and will not do. Ask your doctor to have the information about the treatment choices written down.

Weighing Your Options

Once you know your treatment choices, learn the pros and cons of each one. Ask your doctor what are the benefits and risks of each treatment option. For example, find out what side effects may occur, how long the treatment would take, and how likely it is that the treatment would work for you.

When deciding on a treatment, also think about how it will impact your overall life. For instance, if you are choosing between a few options, think about how each treatment's side effects may have an impact on daily activities that mean a lot to you. You may decide on an option that changes your life the least.

If you do not like any of the options, ask if there are other choices. If cost is a concern, ask the doctor if there is a less expensive option or if your insurance will pay for it. It is also important to ask how soon treatment should start. The doctor can work with you to make a treatment plan that meets your needs.

If You Have Surgery

In some cases, surgery may be the best treatment option for your health problem. If so, your doctor will refer you to a surgeon who can talk to you about the operation. Understanding what the surgery involves will help you get ready for it and can also help you decide if you want to try a different treatment option.

Here are some questions to ask your surgeon.

  1. What will be done during the operation?
  2. What are the risks? What problems may occur because of this surgery?
  3. What is the success rate of the surgery? How often does the surgery work?
  4. What kind of anesthesia will I have? Are there any risks for older people?
  5. Will I have to stay in the hospital overnight?

It is also important to know what you can expect after the surgery. Ask your surgeon about any kind of pain or discomfort you may have after the surgery. Also, find out how long it will take to recover and get back to your normal routine. It is also useful to know if there is anything special you will need to do to recover.

Getting a Second Opinion

Often when surgery seems to be the best choice, a patient will seek a second opinion from another doctor. Your insurance plan may require it. Doctors are used to patients asking for a second opinion and may be able to refer you to another doctor who can talk to you about your health problem. Hearing the views of two different doctors can help you decide what is best for you.

Seeing a Specialist

Your doctor may send you to another doctor called a specialist if he or she does not know a lot about your health problem or does not know what the health problem is. You can also ask to see a specialist, but your insurance plan may require you to have a referral from your doctor.

A visit with a specialist may be short. Often, the specialist already has information about your health from your primary doctor. For example, the specialist may already know your symptoms and medical test results.

Making Sure You Understand

If you do not understand something that the specialist tells you, ask questions. For example, you might say, "I do not know very much about the condition you said I have. Could you explain what it is and how it might affect me?" Also, have the specialist explain your treatment options.

It may be helpful to ask for written materials to read. You can also call your primary doctor to clarify anything you did not understand or that does not make sense to you after your visit with the specialist.

Ask the specialist to send information about your diagnosis or treatment to your primary doctor. This will help your primary doctor keep track of your medical care. Also, during your next doctor visit, you should tell your doctor how well the treatment or medications prescribed by the specialist are working.

In Case of Serious Illness

You may have some concerns or wishes about your care if you become seriously ill. If you have questions about what choices you have, ask your doctor. You can record your decisions about your care in documents that are called "advance directives." Advance directives are directions you leave for your doctor, family, and friends about how to care for your health if you become very ill.

Using Advance Directives

Advance directives can be a living will or healthcare proxy. A living will includes your decisions about medical treatment at the end of life. A healthcare proxy allows you to pick a person or persons who you trust to make health decisions for you if you cannot. A healthcare proxy also states what care you want should you become too sick to talk about it. One way to begin talking to your doctor about advance directives is to say, "I am worried about what would happen in the hospital if I were very sick and not likely to get better. Can you tell me what generally happens in that case?" In general, the best time to talk with your doctor about these issues is when you are still relatively healthy. If you have to stay in the hospital or a nursing home, a nurse or other staff member may ask if you have any advance directives.