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Asking Questions to Get the Care You Need

These days, an appointment with your doctor may give you just enough time to cover the basics: reviewing your medical history, discussing the reason for your visit and finding out if you need follow-up tests or medicines.

But medical appointments usually don’t allow much, if any, time for questions.

It’s hard to ask questions when you’re not sure what the problem is or how to express your concern. That’s why it’s important to be prepared for appointments by thinking of your questions before your visit, writing them down and bringing them with you.

Make sure to ask your doctor, “Is this a good time for me to ask questions?” If it’s not, ask your doctor how and when a time can be set up. By doing this, you are telling your doctor that you need more information.

Why am I stressing the need to ask questions about your health care? Because patients who ask questions get better quality health care and can get better results.

Here’s just one example. It took two years of questions and follow-up before actress and health advocate Fran Drescher learned she had uterine cancer. Today, Ms. Drescher is an eight-year cancer survivor, due in large part to her asking questions that eventually led to the correct diagnosis.

For many health conditions, getting an early diagnosis improves treatment results. In 2008, 40,000 women were diagnosed with uterine cancer for the first time, according to the American Cancer Society. For those diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate is more than 95 percent.

To help patients feel more comfortable about speaking up, my agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Ad Council teamed up to produce new public service announcements for our Questions are the Answer campaign. (Other AHRQ and Ad Council campaigns encourage men to get the right preventive care screeningsand encourage Hispanic men and women to visit a doctor to get preventive tests.)

The new campaign, which began last month, builds on the original campaign that was launched in March 2007. Those ads reminded patients in a lighthearted way that doctors “can’t read their minds.”

In one of the new ads, a confident, assertive woman asks a series of questions to her waiter but clams up at her doctor’s office. Another ad shows a man grilling a salesperson on every feature of a new cell phone but becoming silent in front of his doctor. The take-home message: Ask questions of your medical team.

You can see the new ads at our comprehensive website. In addition to the ads, the site includes a list of 10 questions patients should consider asking at medical appointments.

The website also features a “question builder” that lets patients create a personalized list of questions to bring to their medical appointments. This is a very useful feature because it’s easy to forget a question—even a basic one—when we’re taking in a lot of new information.

As a physician, I know how important it is to hear a patient’s questions because those questions can be the key to providing the right care. And as a patient, I know how important it is to be heard. Make sure you think about your questions before visiting your doctor and ask for the time and information you need.

I’m Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that’s my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Carolyn M. Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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