There are many reasons why patients feel uneasy talking about their health woes. Maybe they have only a vague sense of discomfort and feel embarrassed they don’t know more. They might be nervous or scared. Or maybe they think they should just grin and bear it — and not take up time in a doctor’s office.
Still, experts say it’s critical for patients to feel comfortable asking questions about their health. And asking good questions can be the key to improving communication between patient and doctor, ultimately leading to fewer medical errors and better health outcomes.
In recognition of Health Literacy Month in October, the Georgia Alliance for Health Literacy is making a push for Georgians to make the most out of their medical appointments by listing good questions. The alliance is a nonprofit, volunteer coalition consisting of educators, researchers, government officials, doctors and others concerned about public health. The alliance is holding a series of workshops for medical students and hospital administrators and is also distributing “Ask me 3” posters to about 100 doctor’s offices and clinics across Georgia to help patients make the most of their appointments by helping them ask key questions.
Experts say a good place to start is with the following three simple questions:
1. What is my main problem?
2. What do I need to do?
3. Why is it important for me to do this?
Another challenge for patients is they may also feel rushed during their appointment, and there’s a good chance they are.
The average length of time spent with a doctor — particularly a primary care doctor — is between 13 and 16 minutes, according to a Medscape 2011 survey. Critical care physicians and neurologists tend to spend more time with each patient, closer to 25 minutes.
With such little time with the doctor, Don Rubin, chair of the Georgia Alliance for Health Literacy and a University of Georgia professor emeritus, said it’s important to come prepared to maximize that precious time.
He recommends patients rehearse how they will explain their main concerns and symptoms, and come prepared with a list of questions jotted down on a slip of paper.
Rubin also made the point that effective communication between a patient and a doctor is a two-way street. He said it’s essential that doctors speak in an easy-to-understand language.
It’s not easy to ask questions — and even harder to know what questions to ask. The Georgia Alliance for Health Literacy suggests after asking your doctor questions, if you still don’t understand, don’t be shy about asking for a clarification.
“You might say: ‘This is new to me. Will you please explain it to me again?’” said Rubin.