12 Questions You Should Ask Your Doctor

Don’t be intimidated by the white coat—you have the right to have all the answers you need to take charge of your own health.

By: Melissa Romero

More and more these days, patients are complaining about their relationship with their doctor--if staring at a clipboard and quickly writing you a prescription is what you call a "relationship."

But whether you're going to your annual checkup or are about to receive some results, you as a patient have the right to feel comfortable during an appointment and reassured by your doctor. And he or she has the responsibility to be completely honest with you.

Dr. Nneka Mokwunye, director of the Center of Ethics at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, says these are the 12 most important general questions patients should ask their doctor, in order to take control of their own care and make plans that will be in their best interest. Be sure to write them down before your next appointment!

Is this test necessary?
Numerous medical organizations recently issued lists of 45 tests and procedures they deemed unnecessary or questionable. Says Mokwunye: "The fact is that our health-care system is very test-heavy; we tend to just order a little of everything, whether or not it's useful. A good physician will say, 'I don't really know, but I can get the data.' A bad physician will say, 'If you want, I'll give the test to you.'"

Will my insurance pay for this?
There's nothing worse than getting a test done and receiving a monstrous medical bill in the mail a month later. If your doctor says a test or procedure is necessary but it's not covered by your insurance, explain your situation and ask, "If my insurance can't pay for this, what other options do I have?"

What do you think is wrong with me?
"A lot of times, doctors give you a menu of services because they're trying to respect your right to know. But people can get lost in that massive amount of information," says Mokwunye. She recommends asking your doctor to break down the information so it's unique to your specific issue. Patients should say, "Let's whittle down that now to know what's in my best interest."

What do you think the prognosis is?
If you've been diagnosed with a serious illness, don't let your doctor sugarcoat your prognosis. Mokwunye says to ask him or her directly what your chances of survival are.

What therapies are available?
Be informed of all kinds of treatments and therapies that are available to you as a patient. And always ask your primary doctor to recommend specialists that are best for you, based on your particular case.

What are the realistic alternatives?
If certain therapies or treatments are not ideal for your situation, ask your doctor to recommend alternative therapies that actually work and won't be a waste of time.

I want ________ to speak on my behalf.
Depending on the severity of your illness, certain days you may not feel particularly social or want to speak with anyone. In those cases, it's important to tell your doctor beforehand who your "surrogate mouthpiece," will be, says Mokwunye.

Do you have any pamphlets on my illness that I can take home?
After a particularly troubling diagnosis, emotionally distraught patients are likely to check out of their surroundings. Mokwunye recommends asking your doctor for any educational pamphlets that may help you make better decisions, after you've had some time to go home and read them on your own. "Never trust the Internet," she warns. "People often sit down and Google their illness, and that can push them in all kinds of directions that are not specific to them."

In your experience, how have your other patients done with this issue or illness?
"Physicians have seen it all," says Mokwunye. "They have a lot of experience with knowing how these things play out." However, she notes that all patients and their symptoms run the gamut, so a good physician will answer, "In the past, this is what my patients have experienced, but every patient is different."

What happens next if something goes wrong?
That "What if?" questions are absolutely necessary to ask, Mokwunye says, even if you're scared to know the answer. You and your doctor need to have a plan if something goes wrong. "I'd be very concerned if a doctor was overly confident and said, 'Oh, you'll be fine.'"

What is your philosophy of care?
This is probably the most difficult question to ask doctors, and the most difficult question for them to answer. "You as a patient have the right to decide how you want things to play out," says Mokwunye. If your doctor wants to keep doing treatment after treatment, no matter the results, but you'd rather stop treatment and spend time with loved ones, your doctor should know and respect your philosophy of care, even if he or she doesn't agree with it.