Making Health a Priority: Question me ... please!

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

I like it when patients question me. Not in a disrespectful kind of way, but in a "I want to be well-informed and explore all options" kind of way.   

The 'Good Patient'

Some people feel that being a "good patient" means following a clinician's recommendations without question. They fear that questioning a health care provider might upset them or compromise the relationship.

I can't speak for all clinicians, but I can tell you that this does not bother me in the least. To me, it doesn't mean that you are questioning my intelligence or being "difficult." 

patient asking doctor or other healthcare provider questionsIt means that you are taking an active role in your health care. It means that you are thinking critically about your health, and you are not willing to blindly follow a clinician's advice without understanding why it's the best option for your situation. It means that you want to contribute your own thoughts, opinions, hopes, and fears regarding your health. And I think that's the way it should be.

I would much rather see a questioning patient than a passive, indifferent one. (This is assuming these patients are capable of making informed decisions about their health. Some can't, of course, and that's an entirely different situation.)

It saddens me when I encounter patients with long lists of medications, many of which they cannot recall the names, dosages, or reasons why they take them. It saddens me because I want to see patients informed, interested, and empowered when it comes to their health.

Three Reasons I Want Questions

1. Two heads are better than one. 

Often a patient or family member's questions and concerns give me valuable information. This information helps me to see the situation from a different angle. As a result, their input can strengthen my workup and treatment plan.

As a health care provider, my top priority is to do what's best for the patient, whether that means sticking to my plan, or considering Aunt Betty's amazing idea, which ultimately solves the medical mystery. :)

Those of us who work in health care are accustomed to being humbled on a regular basis. Open-mindedness is a necessity. Your questions will not wreck my self-esteem, and they just might lead to a better plan of care. It isn't about my ego. It's about you getting better.

On the other hand, your input might not change my recommendation. If you insist that you need 300 oxycodone tablets for migraines, I will politely (but firmly) disagree. We might have a conversation about the epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths in the U.S. and how clinicians need to be very careful in their prescribing of these medications. 

However, your input it is always welcomed and considered.  

2. You know your body (and situation) better than I do.

Knowledge vs. Experience. I may have knowledge about the human body, various illnesses, and treatment options, but I am not the one experiencing the symptoms. I often tell patients, "You know your body, and you know when something isn't right. It's important to pay attention to this." I need help in understanding what isn't right and how that feels. If you are thinking, "It feels more like a lung issue. Why so much focus on my heart?", please express these concerns.

I might still want to rule out heart issues, but understanding your experience with these symptoms helps me to make an accurate diagnosis.  

Life Circumstances. Patients know (better than anyone) about their lifestyle and circumstances (including things like stress level, sleep, exercise, mental and spiritual health, relationships, finances, unhealthy habits, etc.). These things have a huge impact on physical health. If you have concerns about certain life circumstances contributing to the problem (e.g., grief, addiction, financial problems, etc.), it's crucial for me to know this.

Please, help me to understand what else is going on. A patient's insight into these things can lead to some serious health-promoting changes.

Intuition. Just as we should pay attention to symptoms, we should also pay attention to our intuition. If you do not feel comfortable with a treatment plan, you should continue to question and explore options until you are comfortable.  

3. Your health is so important. Be informed and empowered!

I get it, not everyone is interested in medicine. Kinda like how not everyone cares about cars. When I bring my car to the mechanic, I don't really care about how all the parts work. I just care that the car gets "fixed" and moving again. 

Many people have the same attitude toward their health. Yet health is different. This isn't about some object you own, which can eventually be traded in for a newer model. This is about you -- your livelihood and well-being!

There's a lot at stake here, and there are no trade-ins.

Fortunately, you don't need a medical degree to arm yourself with good knowledge. In addition to asking your health care provider questions, there is a wealth of reputable information available online, in language that doesn't require a medical terminology class to interpret it. :)

A couple words of caution, though:

  1. Use reputable sources, such as publications by well-known health care organizations, which are backed by evidence-based research
  2. Be prepared to read some "worst case scenario" diagnoses, and try not to let them scare you to death. Most of the time that's not what's going on.

A little homework and an informed conversation with your health care provider can go a long way.

At a minimum, it's important to understand the medications you are putting into your body. Websites such as rxlist.com offer a "patient information" section for various drugs, which explains what the drug treats, how it works, and common side effects. In addition, I encourage you to explore lifestyle changes (such as diet, exercise, stress reduction, sleep, etc.), which can potentially decrease your need for medications. 

Please, Speak Up!

As a health care provider, I want to partner with my patients in improving their health. I'm not the one in the driver's seat; the patient is! Please, take the wheel and be informed, interested, and empowered when it comes to your health!

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.