“Do you have any questions?” the clinician asks. For you, like many others, the answer often is “No, no questions.”
I’ve long wondered why it is so hard for patients to ask questions of their clinicians. It could be that patients cannot think clearly when feeling scared or overwhelmed. It might be that people do not want to appear “stupid” or naïve. It can also be cultural or generational, as when people (like my mother) believe it is rude to question those in authority. And sometimes people simply do not know what questions to ask.
Regardless of reason, experts in health literacy and patient safety agree on the benefit of asking questions. This helps people learn new content, confirms they understand key concepts, and puts new information into personal context.
Whether you are a patient, family member or friend or caregiver, practice manager, or clinician — here are some ways to help others ask questions:
- For patients. Think ahead about what you want to ask. Before appointments, I keep an index card nearby and jot down questions when thinking of them. I then bring this to my appointments. The card not only reminds me about what to ask but also has space for me to write down the clinician’s answers.
- For family members, friends, and caregivers. Help others think of questions they want to ask. It’s hard for many people to think “in the moment,” especially when wearing only a skimpy patient gown. If your friend or family member does not know what to ask, suggest he or she begin by looking at AHRQ’s “Question Builder” list.
- For practice managers. Make it easy for patients to take notes by providing paper, pens, and clipboard or other hard surface. This is an easy, inexpensive way to encourage patients to ask questions.
- For clinicians. Ask open-ended questions such as “What else do you want to know about _______?” rather than the close-ended (yes/no) question, “Do you have any questions?” Another strategy (learned from Lisa Bernstein, then Executive Director of the What to Expect Foundation) is to model good question asking. You can do this by saying something along the lines of, “Many people dealing with ________ want to know about ______. Is that something we should discuss?”
Ways to learn more:
- “Questions are the Answer.” From AHRQ (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality).
- Open Notes: Building Transparency, Trust, and Better Outcomes (HLOL #154). A podcast interview with Susan Woods MD, MPH.
- Lisa Bernstein Talks About Patient-Centered Communication (HLOL #4). A podcast interview with Lisa Bernstein.
- “In Other Words…’Questions Are the Answer’ to Helping Patients Understand Their Health.” H Osborne, On Call Magazine, June 25, 2008.