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Be Your Own Best Advocate: Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider

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I have been seeing a lot of Public Service Announcement (PSA) spots on TV lately, sponsored by www.AHRQ.gov, a government organization that apparently I’m not familiar. The PSAs show a woman in a restaurant asking her server questions like Meg Ryan in the movie, “When Harry Met Sally.” The over-written message on the screen reads, “We ask questions everywhere we go.” Then the screen shows the same woman in her healthcare provider’s office being asked if she has any questions—she declines with head shaking, and the over-written message reads, “Except here.”

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, wants everyone to know that there are 10 questions to ask your healthcare provider when receiving treatment. The goal of the AHRQ is to improve healthcare quality by reducing unnecessary testing, expense, and deaths related to treating patients. As your own best advocate (or advocating for the health of a loved one), if you do your homework prior to doctor visits, you can get the right questions answered:

1. What is the test for?
2. How many times have you done this?
3. When will I get the results?
4. Why do I need this surgery?
5. Are there any alternatives to surgery?
6. What are the possible complications?
7. Which hospital is best for my needs?
8. How do you spell the name of that drug?
9. Are there any side effects?
10. Will this Medicine interact with medicines I’m already taking?

In their “Questions are the Answer” campaign, additional online resources are provided including a handy tool for particular cases where different or additional questions should be asked—it’s on the Build Your Own Question List page. If concerned you may forget the answers, take notes during your doctor visit, or ask for a summation at the end of the visit to reinforce what you learned.

The other PSA from the organization shows a man in a cellphone store asking a bazillion questions about a handset and the service that comes with it. Then when his doctor asks if he has questions during an assumed office visit, he shakes his head slowly, and says “uh, no.” Again, the message is that we need to be asking more questions of our healthcare professionals and following up on our care.

Have you heard of a test or procedure related to your condition you think may be helpful? Do you have a family history that could point the healthcare provider in the right direction to achieve a correct diagnosis? Offer information, and ask questions. It is everyone’s responsibility to be a team player and make sure that your health is your priority in and out of the doctor's office, and not just a priority of your healthcare provider.

Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. She started a women’s group, The Wo-Hoo! Society in the interests of friendship, networking, and philanthropy. The group meets separately on a monthly basis in the Phoenix and Kansas City areas. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.

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Fantastic list of questions. I plan to print out the list and pass it on to my mum who tends to leave doctors appointments without all her concerns addressed. Gret post!

October 16, 2009 - 12:58pm


Thank you! And excellent points about speaking with the nurse before your appointment. That's a wonderful time to bring up concerns. And sometimes the nurse (or physician's assistant or nurse practitioner) can answer your concerns by themselves.

Maybe if we all ask questions all the time, it will become so extremely common that we won't think much about it anymore. Doctors will encourage it more and budget more time for it, and patients will get what they need and encourage friends and family members to do the same. It's how we help change the culture.

Thanks again for a great post.

October 16, 2009 - 8:31am

Wow, Diane...you raise some good comments. Thank you.

I'm glad the posting got you thinking about it, and hope it does for others too. You are right about how immediately after an in-office examination it's not necessarily the most comfortable time to ask questions. My doctor often will allow me to get dressed and come back with any prescriptions or additional information she thinks I need. I find that is an even better time to ask questions. Also, consider that the time with the nurse before your appointment--when taking your vitals--may be a good time to bring up that you have questions, and have those things marked on your chart so the doctor will initiate discussion about them. That way it alleviates any discomfort you may have. Just some additional thoughts.

A doctor's time is valuable, but I believe it is only as valuable as the quality of care they are providing. Just like in other situations throughout your life, if you want top-notch, you need to empower yourself enough to ask for it.

October 14, 2009 - 10:52am


This is a wonderful post. I haven't seen the public service announcements that you mention, but they sound great. I'll keep my eyes open.

I am often guilty of not asking enough questions in the doctor's office, and it's crazy, because I am an information NUT in other aspects of my life. At times before an appointment I have even made a list of my questions -- and then neglected to get the list out, thereby forgetting a couple of them.

And yet here at EmpowHer I research and write answers to health questions for women!!

I have gotten better over the years. But one of the primary factors in how comfortable a woman feels about asking questions is the doctor's way of answering questions and "wrapping up" an appointment. If a doctor is seated with you in her office, before an appointment, asking you whether there's anything on your mind, it's very easy to say "Yes, actually, a few things," and proceed through the list. But if you have just had a Pap smear, are still sitting on the examining table with your paper gown and coverup, and she stands by the door asking, "Is there anything else on your mind?" it can be quite a bit more difficult. The "power" in the room feels like it is heading out the door, and the "subordinate" in the room -- us, undressed and several feet away from our purse and our list -- thinks oh, I'll ask those things later.

And it never helps when you've waited 40 minutes in the outer office and 20 minutes in the inner office. If you're already thinking that you're late getting back to work, you're going to hesitate to do anything that could draw the whole thing out longer, especially if it would involve a detailed conversation.

Doctors are busy, and they have a lot of pressures on their daily schedules. But I'll never forget the first gynecologist I had who actually took the time to talk with me about everything on my mind, as if she had all the time in the world. (I knew she didn't; she was running an hour late due to emergency surgery.) She looked me in the eye, responded to my questions, followed up and invited more. It didn't really take long, and I got all the information I was wanting. It was an epiphany.

If you know ahead of time that you have some questions you'd like to talk about, call ahead and ask the office about their least busy appointment days. If they say every day is busy, ask for an appointment in the morning, where things won't be running behind so much. If your doctor is one of those who talks with you for a few moments before you undress, wonderful -- say, right then, "I have a few unrelated questions I'd like to ask you, is this the best time?" If you have a doctor whom you don't see until she enters your room and you're waiting on the examining table, take your list of questions out and put it on her desk. When she comes in, she'll see it, and it'll feel natural for you to say, "I have a few questions unrelated to my exam, should I ask them now or afterward?"

Either way, you have taken the initiative, and you've let her know right up front that you want some extra conversation time. It'll allow her to adjust her pace if she needs to.

And if you're the kind of person who asks two of your six questions and then feels like you've "imposed" on her too much already, don't let yourself do that. Say right up front -- "OK, I have six questions! Here's the first one:" and just barrel on through.

Maybe the public service announcements will make us all a little more comfortable with taking up more of our doctors' time. I hope so, because it's never easy. But if you think it through ahead of time, you can do it. And you'll be really happy with yourself when you leave.

October 14, 2009 - 8:32am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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