6 Better Questions to Ask Your Doctor
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What You're Used to Asking: Before you go, can I ask you a few questions I wrote down?
The Smarter Version: Can we start by going through my list of questions?
Here's why: The average doctor's appointment (from traveling to the office and filling out paperwork to settling the bill afterward) takes more than 2 hours of our time, but we're only with the doc an average of 20 minutes, finds a new study from Harvard Medical School. In that limited time, your doctor is trying to cover issues related to your own health and those that generally apply to women your age, says Lydia Pace, MD, MPH, an internist in the division of women's health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Asking your questions up front—especially those that aren't related to an issue your doctor already knows about—will help set an agenda that's specific to you and your concerns.
What You're Used to Asking: Can I get my flu shot today?
The Smarter Version: In addition to the flu shot, what other vaccines am I due for?
Here's why: "Vaccines don't end when you turn 18," says Wanda Filer, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Adults should get a tetanus shot every 10 years, and these days, it's usually combined with the pertussis, or whooping cough, vaccine. Pertussis can be deadly for infants, and cases among babies have been on the rise in recent years—vaccinating everyone means infants are less likely to come into contact with it. (Whooping cough can also be brutal for adults who contract it, says Filer, potentially causing coughs so violent they can lead to broken ribs.) Then there are pneumonia, shingles, measles, mumps and rubella and hepatitis A vaccines to consider as well. Ask your doctor what you need and when based on your health.
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What You're Used to Asking: I'm not in my late 30s yet, so I'm okay fertility-wise, right?
The Smarter Version: What can I do now to help make sure that if and when I want kids, my chances of conceiving are as good as possible?
Here's why: Patients don't bring up fertility enough, says Pace, and it should be on the agenda regardless of whether you're talking to an ob-gyn or a GP, because issues that affect reproductive health span both specialties. "Knowing that you want kids in the near future would, for example, influence the medications your GP puts you on or the birth control they or your gynecologist recommend in the meantime," she says. If you have a chronic condition like diabetes, hearing now that you hope to get pregnant down the road can help your doctor manage your illness with that goal in mind (with diabetes for example, your doc may not want you to try to get pregnant until your blood sugar levels are well controlled). So if you have an idea of what your timeline is like, or, if you know kids aren't in the cards, tell your doctor.
What You're Used to Asking: How am I doing?
The Smarter Version: How's my weight?
Here's why: Even if weight is an obvious concern, your doc might not say something about it. Among more than 7,700 people, just 45.2 percent of those considered overweight (a BMI of 25 or more) and 66.4 percent of those considered obese (a BMI of 30 or more) were told by a physician that they were overweight, found a study in Archives of Internal Medicine. That's a problem, as excess weight is a risk factor for a number of illnesses, including heart disease and certain cancers. Once you've brought it up, you and your doctor can set a realistic slim-down goal and come up with a plan to make it happen.
What You're Used to Asking: How bad is my cholesterol? Do I need to change my diet?
The Smarter Version: Am I eating enough of the right kind of fat?
Here's why: Good-for-you fats (the mono- and polyunsaturated kind found in nuts, avocados, seeds and fish) help lower levels of bad cholesterol, while saturated fats raise them. Making sure that you're consuming more of the former and less of the latter may have a bigger impact on your total cholesterol levels than cutting back on dietary cholesterol, says Frank Hu, MD, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which recommended that the U.S Dietary Guidelines do away with the upper limit (300 mg per day) earlier this year.
What You're Used to Asking: So, same time next year?
The Smarter Version: When do I actually need to see you again?
Here's why: You're accustomed to checking in with your doctor yearly, but annual exams aren't based on evidence of better outcomes, says Anne Chang, MD, an internist and the medical director of primary care for University of California San Francisco Women's Health. "If I have a patient who's in great health, I may tell them that they don't need to see me for two or three years unless something comes up." On the other hand, if you're having health issues, your doc may want to see you more frequently. Make sure you're leaving with specific marching orders on any changes or improvements they expect to see by your next appointment. Ask your doctor to write down instructions or, if your doctor's office uses electronic health records, ask them to input their directives into the system so you can access them at home as a reminder.