Sep 13, 2010

How To Get A Straight Answer From A Doctor

The answer is really very simple:
Don’t accept a non-answer answer from a doctor on a question that really matters to you!
If you get a dodgy, vague, or useless answer don’t take it lying down. Politely insist that the doctor elaborate and clarify until you get a reply that you understand.

We doctors are totally scary, but if you have to have the guts to ask the question a second or even third time most docs will do their best to insure you get an answer that makes sense to you. Force the issue!

"Okay doc, now I need you to explain that again in plain English."

Sometimes the doctor will have to look something up and get back to you. Sometimes the doc will have to work to explain something complicated in a way that you can understand. Sometimes if there is no definite answer available your doctor can help you understand the nature of the uncertainly.

Most doctors will work hard to get you an answer, but if your doc blatantly dodges your question after multiple direct inquiries you might just be stuck with a god-complex prick. This is good to know so that you can find another physician ASAP who works well with you.

A few tips for truth-seekers:
Be Ready: Medical decisions and predictions can be really complicated. Add the amount of uncertainly that we work with and the straight answers can get really difficult to grasp. Most of the questions we dodge have difficult answers that might leave you with a headache. Don’t assume that the full answer is always going to make things more clear.

Be Reasonable: You shouldn't use the nuclear I-won’t-leave-till-I-get-an-answer option for every question that pops into your head. Doctors don’t mind giving the full answer from time to time, but if you have an insatiable curiosity you may want to do your own research with Dr. Google. You don’t want to be that patient your doctor groans to see because he knows he’s going to end up running an hour behind every time he sees you.

"Doc, suppose my pancreas was a sentient being trying to assassinate me.
How would that change your treatment plan?"

Accept Disappointment: Some patients confuse "a straight answer" with "the answer I wanted." Sorry! You can ask till you're blue in the face but your doctor still has to say, "Your runny nose doesn't need antibiotics" and "90 year-old Aunt Ethyl probably won't recover" every time. Persistence won't change facts, but it may force exasperated docs to tell you a white lie just to make you quit badgering them. You don't really want to force doctors to be dishonest with you.

Consider yourself warned! Use the "nuclear option" with caution. Now go forth and find out what your doc is really thinking!
What do you think? Have you every forced the issue till you got the answer? Tell your experience in the comments!

Doctor D has typically been on the doctor side of this interaction, and can say a patient dedicated to answers always gets them from me.

But do you as patients think this approach works?


Have Myelin? said...

"But do you as patients think this approach works?" The very short answer: NO.

Doctor D said...


Is this your experience with a particular doc or all docs in general?

Have Myelin? said...

Hello! I would not say "all docs" because that would be unfair.

Generally speaking though I have not had a lot of luck. Especially lately. It seems the more complex your illness, the more vague the doctor becomes.

I have Multiple Sclerosis and it's next to impossible to FIND a doctor that accepts Medicaid so I shouldn't complain, right? =)

Pissed Off Patient said...

I agree with this:

"Generally speaking though I have not had a lot of luck. Especially lately. It seems the more complex your illness, the more vague the doctor becomes."

I just sent a fax off to my endo with a few questions in the hopes of sorting out my latest hormonal hijinks. They are pretty much the same questions I was asking a few weeks ago that got lost in the shuffle.

Although I don't expect much, but I am going to start being creative with prednisone and I don't want to do that behind anyone's back.



I have a perplexing dilema....
what if your Doc tells you one thing post op then he buggars off on holiday, another medical person(2)
tells you actually what happened in your surgery which pretty much covers why the original surgeon had to have a diff surgeon come in to consult during surgery,
however when you ask the consultant covering the holidaying doc to clarify (to ensure you werent hearing drug confused rambling post op) and he tells you a different story and refutes person number 2???
Its a cluster F***, havent seen my surgeon since im sure they will get the story right by the next check up.
This is the only thing really annoying me as I have experienced this before when they just wont tell me what the hell has gone on, im not a child, if they are honest I get over it really fast, if they treat me like a complete dickhead then well they get a dickhead acting patient.

Anonymous said...

This strategy has worked very well for my husband. One time a doctor gave him a one-sentence explanation of the medical issue at hand and was about to rocket out the door. But my husband said, "No, I really want to understand." He said it was as though the doctor instantly metamorphosed into a different person. The doctor sat down and spoke to him for several minutes, lucidly explaining everything at just the level he needed.

As for me, unfortunately, I tend to become disheartened very quickly when a doctor brushes me off. Unless I'm well prepared in advance, I'm unlikely to ask my question a second time. For better or worse, I'll look for more information elsewhere.

Linda said...

After a car accident a few years ago, and three doctors giving me three different diagnoses, I was sent to an orthopaedic surgeon to see whether he could fix the problem. The surgeon examined me, and then gave me another diagnosis along with a 5-min soliloquy on how some people prefer to treat this condition with one option, others with another, and still others with a different solution. I was confused about which choice he was recommending. Usually I don’t ask questions because all M.D.’s are scary and I assume if I question them, they’ll whip out the machete hidden behind their back & chop off a limb. But at that point I’d only slept a few hours at a time for several months and wasn’t completely in control of my brain so I asked, "Do you think I should have surgery?" He repeated his speech. Again I asked, "So do you think I need the surgery?" For the third time, he repeated himself. So I asked him for the third time, "So does that mean you think I should have the surgery?" He exasperatedly shouted at me, "YES, I think you should have the surgery!!" So I did. And it fixed part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

"No, I really want to understand."

That is an excellent sentence. I would love to hear it from a patient because I like teaching and explaining.

However, a lot of people really don't want to understand.

An example would be this last comment - that's my style - I explain options and the patient decides. The commenter didn't like it, but had he come out and said, "Have surgery" without the options, other patients might have really hated it and felt like control was taken out of their hands. Different doctors are for different people. What you might not like might be just right for someone else. Don't assume a doctor is bad because he/she is not your style.

Gen said...

I remember when my daughter was born at 34 weeks gestation. She was in the hospital for a week and I was full of questions.

I found myself wanting to look at my daughter's chart and test results. They would do daily blood gases and I kept asking the doctor what the number was each day. He didn't want to tell me. He'd ask me what it mattered to me.

I guess the number didn't matter, really. I just wanted something concrete that showed me things were getting better. He wouldn't take her off the c-pap until her blood gases were better. So, I'd ask about the blood gas numbers and hope everyday that they improved.

I think the doctor didn't like that I wouldn't take his word that things were getting better. I wanted to see the numbers proving it.

Also, I craved information on every little thing, because it made me feel like I was in more control of the situation. Like, somehow knowing the minutia would somehow empower me.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we get in a vicious cycle - a question gets a vague or bs answer, so I consult Dr. Google and ask it differently the next time. That makes it sound like I know more about what I am asking than I really do, so I get an answer that is over my head.

I have decided that if my question isn't just plain 'answered', that IS my answer - the bad or negative thing I was concerned about is a valid concern.

Linda said...

Anon 7:40 am, I appreciated hearing all the options. I was just confused as to what the doctor's recommendation was. He didn't seem to be giving any option more weight than another. I wasn’t there for an academic exercise; I had a lot of pain that I wanted to go away. Since I had no idea what to do, I was relying on his expertise and needed more direction than I got. I needed him to finish by saying something like, "In your case, I think this would be the better option." Once we were on the same page, he was always very good about explaining, pulling out a model of the body & showing me what he meant, encouraging me to read further about the condition so I could help myself and ask intelligent questions, etc. I have strongly urged other people to go see him. Sorry if I gave the impression that I'm anti-doctor. I have enormous respect for your profession. Even if you're all scary.

Anonymous said...

After two years of dealing with persistent, mysterious hives, I finally went to an allergist. After doing several tests, he diagnosed me with chronic systemic idiopathic urticaria.

"Or, rather, hives all over my entire body that never go away for some reason?"

"Uh, yes."

"Doctor, I told YOU that. Did you just translate my symptoms into Latin and give them back to me as a diagnosis?"

Fortunately for me, he knew I was itchy and desperate. Final diagnosis turned out to be dermographia; no closer to an actual cause, but he gave me some very effective treatment. Thank God.

Anonymous said...

My doctor does not, I think, have a god complex. Rather, it seems to me, he has a "avoid litigation" complex, so he and his well-trained staff (on this issue at least) respond with NOTHING! Lately, I think due to patient feedback through those healthcare feedback forms, not mine though, he responds with "Well, THAT happens to everyone!" which is OK.

sara r. said...

I have had different experiences with doctors, even though I rarely see one. 2 years ago I went to a general practice doctor who was highly recommended because I couldn't figure out why I wouldn't lose weight despite my rigorous exercise. He barely looked at me and diagnosed me with PCOS. Before he even got a test back, he asked me where I would like to pick up the prescription. It took about 5 minutes with Dr. Google for me to realize that I didn't actually have PCOS, but when I told him that, he came back with "I'm the doctor and I know better". Yeah, and the test came back negative. Oh yeah, and I got pregnant 2 weeks later, had a spectacular pregnancy and birth, and finally, magically, lost the weight that I had been trying to lose.
But, if I had just listened to him and not asked more questions, I would have been on meds for a condition that I never had to begin with. Guess if I ever went back to his, no.
5 months after my daughter was born I started having thyroid issues, which turned out to be postpartum thyroiditis. Instead of freaking out and trying to give me drugs, my new doctor let me wait it out (after a few tests and an ultrasound), and eventually I did get back to normal without any more interventions. I brought all of my research to the doctor and we talked about it together. It was great!

Anonymous said...

How do you deal with nurses that are annoyed and complain when the main point of contact ask questions about our relative that is critical in ICU and doctors that will remove themselves from the patient's case because they don't have answers to our questions and don't want to deal with the patient's family?

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