Ask questions, your doctor isn’t psychic

Published: February 26, 2011
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Doctors often don't explain things in detail.

Miscommunications are part of daily routine.  You order a large Coke and no fries at a restaurant and the waiter brings you extra fries and a regular Fanta.  You ask a classmate for physiology notes and she photocopies the entire term’s anatomy notes and presents them to you the next day.

But there’s one place miscommunication can be a serious problem. Having spent time on both sides of the physician-patient fence, I’ve started noticing how doctors often do not explain stuff adequately and patients will not ask enough questions, resulting in huge communication gaps.  In a clinical setting, these gaps can be disastrous.

I think one of the reasons this occurs, especially here, is that patients often enough don’t know their own rights.  It doesn’t matter how harassed the doctor looks or how little time he or she has to spend per patient: what matters  at the end of the day is that you know exactly what is happening to your body and how to fix it.

The following areas are places where mistakes can occur due to the absence of an adequate explanation.  You can help by asking the right questions:

Four times a day or every 6 hours?

Medicine intake is one area where anyone can make mistakes. Be sure you know exactly when to the take prescribed medication, how many times a day, their correct dosage and side effects, and also whether to take them before or after meals.  Also let the doctor know what medicines you’re already on, in case the new ones interfere with the old.

Doctor handwriting

Jokes about awful doctor handwriting stop being funny when you spend three months eating the wrong medicine.  If you can’t read the prescription, your pharmacist might not be able to either.  All medication (and their doses) should be written very clearly.

Muco-purulent cystic what?

Doctors will fall into medical jargon if you let them. They can’t help it.  If you don’t understand a term or a diagnosis, ask what it means.  If they bring out more jargon, demand an explanation in plain English or Urdu or any language you’re comfortable in.  After all, all this is happening to you, you should at least understand what on earth it is.

Is that test necessary?

Even here, where treatment costs are stupendous, people will go on getting tests done without knowing why.  If you think a test is unnecessary or can’t afford it, say so.  The doctor can and should explain why it’s required or else suggest a less expensive alternative.  Simply agreeing and then not getting the test done is not a smart idea.

Also, if you’ve had a test done, ask your doctor about the results.  Don’t assume that it was okay.

What are my options?

As a patient, you make a decision regarding your healthcare, and to do that you need as much information as possible about the treatment options there for you, whether medical or surgical.  Do not be pressurised into choosing a single option if you’re not satisfied with it.

What are the risks?

If you’re going for surgery, you absolutely need to know about complications, time spent in the hospital, total recovery time and chances for complete success.  Also, if the place you’re being operated on performs the procedure regularly or not, as it is better to be operated in a place that does the procedure on a normal basis.

Doctor sahab, I was wondering…

Voice your concerns.  This includes any questions you have about your condition and its treatment – whether other people in your family are at risk, how it will affect your life, side effects of treatment.  While this doesn’t mean that you bring out every anecdote about how your aunt’s neighbour’s brother-in-law said this problem was caused by eating green coconuts on the tenth of the lunar month, you should still ask if something is bothering you, even if you think it’s a small thing or you think it will sound stupid.

Genuine concerns should be discussed at the doctor’s office with the doctor and not at home.  A lot of patients go through unnecessary suffering just because they are afraid to ask.  The doctor can’t read your mind. If you don’t ask, how will they know what is worrying you?

I’d like a second opinion please

Contrary to popular belief, doctors don’t mind if you get a second opinion.  Healthcare in our situation is like shopping – you need to check out quite a few places before you find someone you trust and which is affordable.  In most cases a second opinion will reconfirm the other doctor’s judgment, or even help improve upon his proposed plan of action.  Two heads are better than one.

Remember, a basic patient right is the right to enough information to make an informed decision about your health care.  Doctors are there to treat you, not the disease.  So if you’re not satisfied, ask, ask, ask!

Shumaila H

Shumaila H

A medical student with an undying love for books and literature.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.