Have a Doctor's Appointment? Make a List of Questions

UW Health surgeon Dr. Garren offers tips for asking your physician the right questionsMadison, Wisconsin - Having an annual physical should not just be a matter of getting your blood pressure taken, having your knees tapped with a rubber hammer, and hearing the doctor tell you what's needed to improve your health. You should be empowered to speak openly with your primary care physician, so you get the most out of the visit.


That's according to Dr. Michael Garren, a surgeon and clinical professor of surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He says patients should put together a list of questions before their appointment.


"I think it's important to really think about what your concerns are and how you are feeling in terms of symptoms you want evaluated, and what you would like to know as far as preventive health care over the next year," he said.  "You should ask about required screening tests such as mammograms, colonoscopy, and blood testing. The key is writing down the questions a week or so in advance.  I've had some people come to me with a 'deer-in-the-headlights' look; they are anxious and are afraid to ask questions.  I think the tendency is to clam up and take whatever the doctor tells you. If you come to the appointment prepared with questions, that makes it a lot easier."


Garren said the same thing should apply when the patient visits a surgeon.

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"Let's say you need to have your gallbladder removed after getting a recommendation from a primary doctor," he said. "Questions should focus on the procedure; what is involved; what are the risks, the benefits and the alternatives; recovery time; required medications; the amount of time that the patient will have to take off from work; and if they can return in a limited capacity. Those are questions a surgeon should be able to answer."


But getting the patient to open up and be honest about his/her condition is not always easy."I think there are situations where the doctor takes what the patient offers, and doesn't delve in deeper when they should or could," Garren said. "I may get a sense that there might be something bothering the patient that he is not talking about, and I am quick to ask the question, 'Is there anything else troubling you?'"


"I'm afraid that in a lot of situations, patients walk out of the visit without asking questions, because they don't want to waste the doctor's time," he added. "Perhaps at the beginning of the appointment, the patient should ask the doctor if there will be time for questions and that sets the tone right off the bat that lets the physician know there are some questions the patient wants answered."


Garren said it is also essential that the patient feels comfortable with their primary care physician or surgeon. If not, the patient should seek another medical professional who would be a better fit.


"It's really important that patients have the confidence that their physician is the right one for them," he said. "If they don't, they should seek a change, especially for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure where there are frequent visits or issues that arise. As you get older, it's critical that you have absolute confidence in your physician and that person's ability to communicate. It's the same thing with specialty surgery. If you think the doctor is an absolute jerk, you should request another physician."


Garren said two-way communication between the patient and physician is essential if the patient wants to feel healthier and not have to go through the burden of undergoing procedures that may not be necessary.


"If there is good communication, that can reduce the need for unnecessary testing," he said. "We give far too many tests, and I believe we don't cone down enough on the patient's problems. For example, there are probably 40 things that can cause chest pain, and the tendency is to give tests that look at all 40. But if you spend five to 10 minutes questioning a patient, you might be able to eliminate 30 of them. If there is an impediment in communication, there is a likelihood of more tests and more medications over a longer period of time spent on something that could be evaluated more quickly."

Date Published: 10/16/2013

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