Heath and Aging

Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People

Asking More Questions: Talking to Doctors in Special Situations

Your doctor may send you to a specialist for further evaluation, or you may request to see a specialist yourself. It's likely that your insurance plan will require you to have a referral from your primary doctor.

cartoon of doctor with magnifying glass and wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat

A visit to the specialist may be short. Often, the specialist already has seen your medical records or test results and is familiar with your case. If you are unclear about what the specialist tells you, ask questions.

For example, if the specialist says that you have a medical condition that you aren't familiar with, you may want to say something like: "I don't know very much about that condition. Could you explain what it is and how it might affect me?" or "I've heard that is a painful problem. What can be done to prevent or manage the pain?"

You also may ask for written materials to read, or you can call your primary doctor to clarify anything you haven't understood.

Ask the specialist to send information about any further diagnosis or treatment to your primary doctor. This allows your primary doctor to keep track of your medical care. You also should let your primary doctor know at your next visit how well any treatments or medications the specialist recommended are working.

Questions to ask your specialist:

  • What is your diagnosis?
  • What treatment do you recommend? How soon do I need to begin the new treatment?
  • Will you discuss my care with my primary doctor?

If you need to have surgery

In some cases, surgery may be the best treatment for your condition. If so, your doctor will refer you to a surgeon. Knowing more about the operation will help you make an informed decision about how to proceed. It also will help you get ready for the surgery, which makes for a better recovery.

Ask the surgeon to explain what will be done during the operation and what reading material, videotapes, or websites you can look at before the operation.

Find out if you will have to stay overnight in the hospital or if the surgery can be done on an outpatient basis. Will you need someone to drive you home? Minor surgeries that don't require an overnight stay can sometimes be done at medical centers called ambulatory surgical centers.

Questions to ask your surgeon:

  • What is the success rate of the operation? How many of these operations have you done successfully?
  • What problems occur with this surgery? What kind of pain or discomfort can I expect?
  • What kind of anesthesia will I have? Are there any risks associated with it for older people?
  • Will I have to stay in the hospital overnight? How long is recovery expected to take? What does it involve? When can I get back to my normal routine?

Seeking a Second Opinion

When surgery is recommended, patients often seek a second opinion. Hearing the views of two different doctors can help you decide what's best for you. In fact, your insurance plan may require it. Doctors are used to this practice, and most will not be insulted by your request for a second opinion. Your doctor may even be able to suggest other doctors who can review your case.

Always remember to check with your insurance provider in advance to find out whether a second opinion is covered under your policy, if there are restrictions to which doctors you can see, and if you need a referral form from your primary doctor.

If you are hospitalized

If you have to go to the hospital, some extra guidelines may help you. First, most hospitals have a daily schedule. Knowing the hospital routine can make your stay more comfortable. Find out how much choice you have about your daily routine and express any preferences you have about your schedule. Doctors generally visit patients during specific times each day. Find out when the doctor is likely to visit so you can have your questions ready.

In the hospital, your primary doctor and various medical specialists, as well as nurses and other health professionals, may examine you. If you are in a teaching hospital, doctors-in-training known as medical students, interns, residents, or fellows, also may examine you. Many of these doctors-in-training already have a lot of knowledge and experience. They may be able to take more time to talk with you than other staff. Nurses also can be an important source of information, especially since you will see them often.

Questions to ask medical staff in the hospital:

  • How long can I expect to be in the hospital?
  • When will I see my doctor? What doctors and health professionals will I see?
  • What is the daily routine in this part of the hospital?

If you go to the emergency room

A visit to the emergency room can be stressful. It may go more smoothly if you can take along the following items:

  • Your health insurance card or policy number.
  • A list of your medications.
  • A list of your medical problems.
  • The names and phone numbers of your doctor and one or two family members or close friends.

Some people find it helpful to keep this information on a card in their wallet or purse at all times.

Depending on the problem, you may have a long wait in the emergency room. Consider taking things to make the wait more comfortable, such as something to read or a sweater in case the room is cold.

While in the emergency room, ask questions if you don't understand tests or procedures that are being done. Before leaving, make sure you understand what the doctor told you or ask for written instructions. For example, if you have bandages that need changing, be sure you understand how and when it should be done. Tell your primary doctor as soon as possible about your visit to the emergency room.

Questions to ask medical staff in the emergency room:

  • Will you talk to my primary doctor about my care?
  • Do I need to arrange any further care?
  • May I get instructions for further care in writing?
  • Is there someone here who speaks my language and can explain the instructions?

Summary: Talking to Doctors in Special Situations

  • Ask questions if you are unclear.
  • Try to write down as much information as possible.
  • Tell your primary care doctor if you see a specialist, need surgery, or have gone to the emergency room.

Publication Date: April 2010
Page Last Updated: July 17, 2014