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Aging In Place

Ask Your Doctor the Important Questions

by Max Zubatsky Resource:

“Have a seat and we’ll call your name soon.”
“Please fill out these forms to the best of your ability.”
“The doctor will see you now.”

Let’s face it; a doctor’s visit is not the ideal item on a Tuesday morning list of tasks. From the sterile smell in the air to the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the waiting room, the culture of medicine can be an intimidating place for many. Even more, a recent diagnosis can offer several unknown questions in a patient’s life.

When a caregiver or family member attends these appointments, one endures the unnerving feeling of what news they might hear for their loved one. Although anxiety mounts when you enter the room and speak with a doctor, it’s important that your voice is heard and that you’ve relayed your concerns.

Several barriers often get in the way of caregivers and family members asking questions at initial appointments. The length of visits has been a major hurdle that larger health care facilities are trying to address. The limited amount of time to check in about the patient’s health or go in-depth about the symptoms leaves little room for others to offer their insights. With more than one billion physician visits reported over the last year, time has been severely compromised for most medical professionals.

Lack of rapport with just one physician or specialist can also make caregivers uneasy to report their concerns or questions about an illness. I often hear family members of patients say, “I didn’t want to ask the wrong questions to someone I just met.” Even questioning one’s advice or clarifying a statement could challenge the power dynamic in the room.

There is still this notion of many that the doctor is the “all knowing” professional and that you shouldn’t challenge the authority of someone with an advanced degree. The fact is that most professionals want to hear what you’re going through and what feedback you can offer.

Having worked in close proximity with doctors and other medical professionals, I’ve seen the importance communication plays between the doctor, the patient and the caregiver. Communication should be a three-way process, where the caregiver can be seen as a team member in one’s medical treatment rather than an outsider.
The caregiver is often the bridge between the patient and the healthcare system. Furthermore, the caregiver has perspectives of the illness that the patient often never realizes. These details can help doctors and professionals fill in the critical gaps for the care of the patient.

The following questions can help new caregivers gather basic information from their doctors. This is not an inclusive list, and caregivers are encouraged to raise additional questions related to the specific diagnosis.


1. What are the symptoms of this diagnosis?
New caregivers are often afraid to show their vulnerability in not knowing the specifics of a diagnosis. You would be shocked to hear the number of caregivers who leave an appointment and are frustrated at not finding out basic information about the patient. Finding out what to see or expect from the course of a diagnosis can help inform your doctor of the progression or regression of the illness at the next visit. Additionally, this information alleviates some anxiety and stress of new caregivers through the initial phases of treatment.

2. What is this person able to do and not able to do?
Many first time caregivers are unsure how to handle the daily living activities and tasks of patients. Doctors usually have experience in knowing what patients can handle during the early stages of a diagnosis. Find out what the illness can limit the person from doing. Can they still resume driving? Can they maintain physical exercise routines? What foods are still acceptable to eat?

3.What are the most helpful things I can do as a caregiver?
Once you leave a doctor’s office, many of the daily responsibilities for a patient fall in the caregiver’s hands. Asking this question not only informs caregivers about their role in this new adjustment, but builds rapport between doctors and caregivers. Physicians or specialists can offer caregivers some boundaries around what can help or hurt an individual’s functioning and coping around an illness.

4. How can I get more information on the medications they’re taking?
With more medications hitting the market, it’s increasingly difficult for family members and caregivers to track the side effects, dosing and administration of a specific prescription. Monitoring medications for patients is one of the most important tasks for primary caregivers to assume. Knowing the medication schedule can help caregivers and patients negotiate a schedule for taking the medication and working around other daily living tasks.

5. What is the plan of treatment going forward?
I’m always surprised when this topic is not discussed in further detail at an initial appointment. You shouldn’t have to leave an office with an ambiguous outlook of what the illness will hold. Having a tentative idea of future medical appointments, procedures, surgeries or examinations will help caregivers schedule their time better and be more informed of the treatment options of the patient.

6. What options are available if the diagnosis gets worse?
We all want to see the optimistic side of an illness and find ways that the patient can recover effectively. This question is usually not on the mindset of new caregivers, partially because it’s a daunting thought to consider. Caregivers have to be prepared if symptoms or the course of an illness start to deteriorate. Your doctor will appreciate your forward thinking and considering all possible options down the road.

7. Can I have a copy of the records?
The medical information of a patient is not limited to professionals. With a release of information and signed authorization, caregivers and other members in the patient’s treatment can receive a copy of medical records. These copies can help you track the progress of a patient between appointments. Additionally, you can always bring these documents to appointments and ask further questions.

8. How can I reach you if I have any further questions?
Communication should not be limited to just appointments. This question can show your doctor that you have motivation to be involved in the patient’s treatment plan. Yes, doctors are incredibly busy and have limited windows of time for phone and email communication. But it’s important to have some assurance that your doctor will be a supportive resource through this challenging time.

The journey of medical appointments after a family member or loved one has received a diagnosis should be a collaborative process. Because of the high patient loads, updates of electronic medical records and frequency of staff meetings, doctors can often miss valuable information discussed in short appointments. As a caregiver, you play a vital role in the treatment that a patient receives.

One of the recent missions in the healthcare system is to make medicine more patient- and family-centered. Illness does not only affect the patient, but also those involved in the care and responsibilities of the individual. Never feel that a medically-related question is a dumb question. After all, you’re the closest witness to the daily symptoms, struggles and living activities of the affected individual.

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