Asking Questions: Who, When, How

Make a list of questions (perhaps in a notebook to keep them together) before seeing the doctor. Leave room under each one to jot down notes during the visit (or ask your partner or a friend to take notes). Don’t worry if at first you’re uncomfortable asking questions and taking notes during doctor’s visits. If you were looking to buy a house or car, you’d jot down notes naturally. So learn to be just as comfortable in the teamwork with your doctor.

Your doctors’ responses to your questions will be based largely on their training, experience, and judgments regarding your particular situation. Doctors also may be making a judgment as to how much they feel you want to know, how they feel you can deal with it, and their impressions of your ability to understand what is said.

We don’t suggest you ask every question contained in this booklet! Instead, think of these lists as a “menu” from which you make selections at times that are right for you. In addition to asking your doctor, other good sources of information for some questions may be your oncology nurse, hospital social worker, case manager, patient advocate, or pharmacist.

Who: Office Staff, Doctor, Nurse, Social Worker
Your doctor is the best source of information for many of your questions. However, if you expect your doctor to meet all your needs, your expectations probably are too high. It is important to understand that doctors can’t be expected to meet a patient’s every need. Depending upon the question, other good sources of information are the office staff, oncology nurses, social workers, patient advocates, case managers, and pharmacists. If needed, your doctor will be able to refer you to a social worker, psychologist, sex therapist, pastoral counselor, or other professional capable of helping you and your family with your non-medical needs.
When: Timing Can Be Important
Some of your questions will be more important than others. When you have a very important one, you want a response that has been well thought out and not given on the spur of the moment or under time pressure. Asking at the right time may also mean asking at a time that will allow you adequate time to think about the doctor’s response, ask follow-up questions, and make careful decisions about your treatment.

If you need to talk with your doctor for an extended time, either by phone, e-mail, or in person, let the doctor know in advance, if possible. It may also be helpful to give your nurse a list of questions in advance so your doctor can give them adequate attention before talking with you.

“Asking at the right time” also means you shouldn’t delay asking important questions until the doctor visits you in the hospital the day before your surgery, or the day before you begin other treatment. You want to talk with your doctor under the least—not the most—amount of stress, and often you need to “think through” what was said and how it could impact your life. If you become overwhelmed during a visit, ask to set up another appointment in a few days.

You should also find out the best way to contact your doctor (e-mail, phone, etc.) for questions during and after office hours. S/he may need to be contacted differently depending on the time of day and scope of your questions.

Make sure you choose one person to communicate about your concerns. Having many people asking questions over and over again can make it hard to communicate well with your doctor. As transitions or changes happen in your care, sometimes there are special circumstances when you want your family to meet with your doctor to better understand what is happening. In these cases, you may want to ask for a separate appointment for a family meeting to discuss these kinds of care issues.

How: Wording Questions
One thing to remember is: Don’t ask “leading” questions. A leading question is one that is worded in a way that signals the answers you’re hoping for. Without meaning to, you could trigger a response that could be incorrect, misleading, or incomplete. Here are some examples of leading questions and how they can be more worded better:

Leading Questions

  • Have you done a lot of these operations?
  • I’m going to be all right, aren’t I?
  • Is the nursing care in the hospital you use adequate?

Effective Questions

  • How many of these operations have you done in the past twelve months?
  • What do you think my prognosis is?
  • What section of the hospital will I be in, and what training have the nurses there had?

No question is too small to ask. Every question you have is important.