In the vast toolbox of ways that you can improve your health - from eating well, to getting regular check-ups, to making a doctor's appointment when you have an illness - one easily accessible tool is often overlooked by patients: asking questions. Yet speaking up about a protocol you don't understand or a lingering query can help you be more empowered about your health.
In fact, research has shown that when doctors encourage patient-centered communication, their patients ask more questions, are more engaged, follow care management programs better and are generally healthier. So if asking questions can help empower patients, why are so many people hesitant to speak up? A panel of patient safety experts found that patients avoid asking questions for a few reasons: They worry about taking up too much of a doctor's time, they don't want to be labeled as a difficult patient or they assume that the medical terms are beyond the scope of their understanding.
Yet clinicians want to hear and answer your questions. For doctors, questions can offer additional insight into the situation or illness at hand and they can serve as a last line of defense against a possible error. Doctors also know that curious patients are healthier patients, and they appreciate that questions can make patients more proactive about their own care management. One of the simplest yet most empowering questions is one that you can ask almost every time you see your doctor: What should I work on before my next visit?
Q is for questions
The good news is that it's never too late to start flexing your questioning skills. Even a handful of thoughtful questions can trigger the benefits of being an empowered patient.
"Brainstorm a list of questions before your doctor's visit."
One strategy for asking more questions during your doctor's visit is to brainstorm a list beforehand. This is especially true if you're the kind of person whose mind goes blank when you're put on the spot. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality suggests jotting down two to five questions before you head to the doctor's office, so that you'll be sure to ask the pertinent queries.
As you make your list, it might help to think of communication with your doc as a two-way street: Ask yourself what information you want to share during the visit (your flu symptoms) and what questions do you need answered from your doc (how flu meds might interact with your prescription medication or whether you should get a vaccine next year).
Utilizing the patient portal
If your health care provider has a patient portal, asking questions is even easier. You can use the secure messaging through the portal to communicate directly with your doctor or support staff. This can be handy at any time, but it's especially convenient if you get home from a visit and realize you still have questions about your care plan or forgot to ask a crucial question. When health care offices use a patient portal to respond to your query, it means you'll be able to return to those answers again and again - something that's hard to do when you're scrawling notes while talking to your doctor over the phone.
You might even be able to query your doctor in lieu of an office visit entirely. It's worth talking with your doctor to figure out what kinds of situations can be handled over the patient portal and which would warrant an office visit or, for very pressing questions, perhaps a phone call. Whether it's during an office visit or through a patient portal, asking questions - and getting empowered - will become second nature the more that you do it.