Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People
What Can I Ask? Getting Information
Asking questions is key to good communication with your doctor. If you don’t ask questions, he or she may assume you already know the answer or that you don’t want more information. Don’t wait for the doctor to raise a specific question or subject because he or she may not know it’s important to you. Be proactive. Ask questions when you don’t know the meaning of a word (like aneurysm, hypertension, or infarct) or when instructions aren’t clear (for example, does taking medicine with food mean before, during, or after a meal?).
Learn About Medical Tests
It's important to ask your doctor questions when you don't understand something, such as about medical tests they recommend or details about your diagnosis.
Sometimes doctors need to do blood tests, x-rays, or other procedures to find out what is wrong or to learn more about your medical condition. Some tests, such as Pap tests, mammograms, glaucoma tests, and screenings for prostate and colorectal cancer, are done regularly to check for hidden medical problems.
Before having a medical test, ask your doctor to explain why it is important, what it will show, and what it will cost. Ask what kind of things you need to do to prepare for the test. For example, you may need to have an empty stomach, or you may have to provide a urine sample. Ask how you will be notified of the test results and how long they will take to come in.
Questions to ask about medical tests:
- Why is the test being done?
- What steps does the test involve? How should I get ready?
- Are there any dangers or side effects?
- How will I find out the results? How long will it take to get the results?
- What will we know after the test?
When the results are ready, make sure the doctor tells you what they are and explains what they mean. You may want to ask your doctor for a written copy of the test results. If the test is done by a specialist, ask to have the results sent to your primary doctor.
Can I Find Information About Medical Tests Online?
Yes—there is a lot of information online about medical tests. The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus website provides links to many trustworthy resources. You can get information on preparing for lab tests, explanations of different tests, and tips on interpreting lab test results.
Discuss Your Diagnosis and What to Expect
A diagnosis identifies your disease or physical problem. The doctor makes a diagnosis based on the symptoms you are experiencing and the results of the physical exam, laboratory work, and other tests.
If you understand your medical condition, you can help make better decisions about treatment. If you know what to expect, it may be easier for you to deal with the condition.
Ask the doctor to tell you the name of the condition and why he or she thinks you have it. Ask how it may affect you and how long it might last. Some medical problems never go away completely. They can’t be cured, but they can be treated or managed.
Questions to ask about your diagnosis:
- What may have caused this condition? Will it be permanent?
- How is this condition treated or managed? What will be the long-term effects on my life?
- How can I learn more about my condition?
If your doctor prescribes you new medication, ask questions about why you need it and if there are special instructions or possible side effects.
Your doctor may prescribe a drug for your condition. Make sure you know the name of the drug and understand why it has been prescribed for you. Ask the doctor to write down how often and for how long you should take it.
Make notes about any other special instructions. There may be foods or drinks you should avoid while you are taking the medicine. Or you may have to take the medicine with food or a whole glass of water. If you are taking other medications, make sure your doctor knows, so he or she can prevent harmful drug interactions.
Sometimes medicines affect older people differently than younger people. Let the doctor know if your medicine doesn’t seem to be working or if it is causing problems. It is best not to stop taking the medicine on your own. If you want to stop taking your medicine, check with your doctor first.
If another doctor (for example, a specialist) prescribes a medication for you, call your primary doctor’s office and leave a message letting him or her know. Also call to check with your doctor’s office before taking any over-the-counter medications. You may find it helpful to keep a chart of all the medicines you take and when you take them. A sample chart is included as Worksheet 3 at the end of this booklet.
The pharmacist is also a good source of information about your medicines. In addition to answering questions and helping you select over-the-counter medications, the pharmacist keeps records of all the prescriptions you get filled at that pharmacy. Because your pharmacist keeps these records, it is helpful to use the same store regularly. At your request, the pharmacist can fill your prescriptions in easy-to-open containers and may be able to provide large-print prescription labels.
What Are Side Effects?
“My headache prescription always makes me sleepy.”
“Aunt Sarah’s cough syrup caused a rash.”
Unwanted or unexpected symptoms or feelings that happen when you take a medicine are called side effects.
Some side effects happen just when you start taking a medicine. Some happen only once in a while and you learn how to manage them. But other side effects may make you want to stop taking the medicine. Tell your doctor if this happens. He or she may be able to prescribe a different medicine or help you deal with these side effects in other ways.
Questions to ask about medications:
- What are the common side effects? What should I pay attention to?
- When will the medicine begin to work?
- What should I do if I miss a dose?
- Should I take it at meals or between meals? Do I need to drink a whole glass of water with it?
- Are there foods, drugs, or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
- Will I need a refill? How do I arrange that?
Common Abbreviations for Prescriptions
Doctors and pharmacists often use abbreviations or terms that may not be familiar. Here is an explanation of some of the most common abbreviations you will see on the labels of your prescription medications:
|Ask your doctor/pharmacist to explain anything confusing about your prescription, and keep a record of all your medicines and instructions for taking them.|
Understand Your Prescriptions
When the doctor writes a prescription, it is important that you are able to read and understand the directions for taking the medication.
If you have questions about your prescription or how you should take the medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist. If you do not understand the directions, make sure you ask someone to explain them. It is important to take the medicine as directed by your doctor.
Keeping a record of all the medications you take with instructions for how to take them may be useful. Worksheet 3 at the end of this booklet is a sample chart that can help.
Tips: Helping You Remember
No matter what your age, it’s easy to forget a lot of what your doctor says. Even if you are comfortable talking with your doctor, you may not always understand what he or she says. So, as your doctor gives you information, it’s a good idea to check that you are following along. Ask about anything that does not seem clear. For instance, you might say: “I want to make sure I understand. Could you explain that a little more?” or “I did not understand that word. What does it mean?”
Another way to check is to repeat what you think the doctor means in your own words and ask, “Is this correct?” Here are some other ideas to help make sure you have all the information you need.
Take notes—Take along a notepad and pen and write down the main points, or ask the doctor to write them down for you. If you can’t write while the doctor is talking to you, make notes in the waiting room after the visit. Or, bring an audio recorder along, and (with the doctor’s permission) record what is said. Recording is especially helpful if you want to share the details of the visit with others.
Get written or recorded materials—Ask if your doctor has any brochures, DVDs, CDs, cassettes, or videotapes about your health conditions or treatments. For example, if your doctor says that your blood pressure is high, he or she may give you brochures explaining what causes high blood pressure and what you can do about it. Ask the doctor to recommend other sources, such as websites, public libraries, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies that may have written or recorded information you can use.
Talk to other members of the healthcare team—Sometimes the doctor may want you to talk with other health professionals who can help you understand and carry out the decisions about how to manage your condition. Nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, and occupational or physical therapists may be able to take more time with you than the doctor.
Call or email the doctor—If you are uncertain about the doctor’s instructions after you get home, call the office. A nurse or other staff member can check with the doctor and call you back. You could ask whether the doctor, or other health professional you have talked to, has an email address you can use to send questions.
Publication Date: April 2010
Page Last Updated: January 22, 2015