Talking to Your Doctor: A Guide for Patients

Imagine I ask myself the question: which doctor do I see this week?

Witchdoctor or which doctor? Genius, God, or man?


I have no fatal conditions, so don’t worry. But since I’ve known quite a few MDs as a colleague, friend, or patient, here is some advice about how to ready yourself for your next medical visit.


This applies in particular if you will be meeting a specialist. These suggestions are also the product of the numerous comments from my own clients about their experience with the healing arts.

PREPARE: Make a list of your symptoms and medications; consult reputable websites like Mayo Clinic, but do not make yourself crazy with conspiracies or every worst-case possibility. Think about questions you’d like answered.

YOU ARE NOT A HOSTAGE: Don’t be intimidated. God neither wears a white coat nor uses a stethoscope. The MD is a human being. Use your session efficiently, but you are entitled to time. You (or your insurer) will pay for the service.

TAKE NOTES:  Perhaps bring someone along who can verify what you heard, ask questions you don’t think of, and offer his impression of the expert.  

COLLABORATION: Choose a primary care physician (also called an internist) if you are without one. He should come to know you better than a specialist, possess a wide knowledge of the field, and provide insight into advice from fellow MDs. If you see this person yearly, a collaborative relationship should develop.

THE DOCTOR’S STAFF: Take a measure of the people employed by the individual in charge. Their listening skills, competence, thoroughness, and kindness often reflect the qualities of their superior.

TREATMENT CHOICES: At some point in the visit, the doc should indicate what comes next. He might order tests or a consultation with a colleague. Perhaps medication will be prescribed or a procedure involving the examination of an internal organ. Maybe surgery.

If he does not mention alternatives (say, watchful waiting, drugs, or another approach), ask what else might be done. Speak if you wish to hear more about each method. Request printed literature, as well. These days, previously extreme interventions sometimes involve only small incisions, minimal time in a clinical setting, and rapid recovery.

COMMUNICATION ISSUES: If you don’t understand some of the words or names the authority uses, tell him so and ask for language easier for someone not trained in his field. Feel free to slow him down.

The doc might recommend a more than ordinary therapeutic approach. Some will offer possibilities and take a collaborative attitude, wishing not to impose a decision. The following question can be useful: if you were making a recommendation to a loved one, what would you suggest?

Short of an emergency, not everything needs to be determined the same day. Doing your own homework, obtaining a second opinion, and finding time to catch your breath don’t necessitate anyone’s permission.

SURGERY: The expert could say something like, “The two surgeries I perform are X and Y.” Inquire whether there are others and create a conversation about pros and cons.

Seek details. Become informed about potential side effects and their likelihood in percentages, the necessity of hospitalization, and possible rehabilitation afterward (knee replacement often demands this).

Ask how many times the doc has performed the procedure. Consider his age. Not everyone retains undiminished fine motor skills forever. Find out how many such surgeries are done at the hospital where he practices compared to other healthcare centers. The more, the better. Investigate institutional rankings for the particular intervention or treatment you will receive.

If your surgery requires fasting beginning on the evening before, that fact might influence what time you prefer the appointment — probably early if you can get it.

Take a look at any record of legal action claiming malpractice by the MD or the hospital and its employees. Such information should be available on state websites.

PERSONALITIES AND SURGEONS. Doctors need confidence, with surgeons at the top of the list of those needy of the characteristic. You don’t want an uncertain person guiding the manipulation or invasion of your body. Don’t be surprised at the absence of a tender bedside manner.

Why? Even psychotherapists maintain a therapeutic distance from their patients. Surgeons often go further in this direction. They mustn’t feel the full weight or dread of what they are engaged in while in a surgical theater. My encounters with this gifted group have included both the cold and the more approachable variety of humanity.


LEGAL FORMS: Your signature will be desired in many places. The documents detail risks, your rights, who can receive information about your condition, etc.


Medical facilities often employ physicians in training. Ask yourself the degree to which you desire care from these (typically bright and talented) younger people. Doctors must gain this experience to become skilled. For you, however, the question is, do you want the lady or man who performed 2000 procedures or 10?


Make sure the doctor knows what decision you make and your autograph doesn’t contradict your spoken wishes. Don’t assume someone else will tell the doc unless you do.

GUARANTEES: There are none. When asked about surgical side-effects, more than one doc told me, “Well, you could die.” You might have noticed I’m not dead. Ask yourself about your own risk tolerance.

Not everyone reacts to medication in the same way.

Doing nothing can also have physical consequences, as does pretending you are fine despite your physician or relative’s belief you are not.

Too many men avoid doctors in the belief “He cares about my money, nothing else” or “I don’t need an examination.”

Good luck, fellas.

THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE: Because of the lengthy period when the field offered a primitive level of expertise (if any), the discipline’s scientific basis doesn’t have a long past.

Strep throat killed people in the absence of any antibacterial medication. The initial successful use of penicillin in the USA, the first such drug, occurred in 1942.

There was no polio vaccine in the first years of my childhood (the late 1940s and ’50s). During the US Civil War and after, amputations were done with saws.


Years-long gaps exist between fresh knowledge and the point at which the practice of healing changes. The profession requires both learning what is new and unlearning what is no longer considered best and might be harmful in light of recent data.

Remember what I said about the initial employment of penicillin? The first use in the UK was in 1930, 12 years before.

MEDICAL SPECIALIZATION: The dramatic expansion and creation of techniques and other discoveries tax every doctor to keep up. These fine women and men are often lifesavers. They’ve earned our gratitude and more than a decent living.

Understand, however, no one masters every other discipline within the helping professions. Moreover, physicians do not always have easy access to other specialists, nor the infinite time to sit down with them for in-depth discussions.

If you are being treated by multiple professionals, the ability to integrate each of them increases the challenge for them and for you.

When you are consulting more doctors than you can manage, think about going to a place like the Mayo or Cleveland Clinics, where a team approach can be found.

PHYSICIANS WORK MIRACLES: I’ve highlighted some pitfalls because nobody wants to fall into the pit.

Remember this: All doctors are bound by ethical guidance derived from the ancient Hippocratic Oath. They mean you well.

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Another excellent list of Questions to Ask Before Surgery comes from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Here is the full text of the Hippocratic Oath. It offers the first written ethical guidelines for physicians.

All of the paintings are the work of German Expressionist artist Gabriele Munter. They include Flowers on White (Cyclamen and Hyacinth), Still Life with PoppiesInterior with Christmas Tree, and Morning Shadow. All but the second image was sourced from Wikiart.org.

18 thoughts on “Talking to Your Doctor: A Guide for Patients

  1. I wonder if any of the above applies to the VA. Luckily, I have both Medicare and VA Benefits, so I can use both. I can’t believe people died from strep throat. I had strep throat a few years ago. It took the docs 2 times to get the test right. My fever and fatigue were telling signs of major trouble, but it was a burn in my throat that I’ve never ever experienced before. After being misdiagnosed the first time and properly diagnosed the second (the story of my life, by the way), I finally received the proper treatment. I felt better within days. I’ve had nothing but illnesses throughout my life. Chickenpox is one of them. I’m terrified of getting shingles now. I don’t want to go blind. I used to be okay with germs and viruses, but not anymore. I have a hard time trusting doctors. After reading about alleged accounts of malpractice among minority patients, it’s really challenging to see equity and inclusivity in healthcare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dragonfly…I had shingles when I was relatively young in my mid-40’s, brought on by a round of prednisone. Shingles are painful. I became eligible for the Shringex vaccine, which is suppose to be an excellent two-dose vaccine in the prevention of shingles. The first does my husband and I were tired and weak, and the second dose had us huddled in bed covered in blankets and winter coats, shivering for 24 hours, then we were fine. I am glad I had the series and would do it again. If you are interested, maybe you can discuss it with your doctor. I think you have to be 50 or older to qualify.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Nancy. I have 3 years left to go before I reach 50. I’m hoping that I never get shingles. My poor mom had it, and she said she got it in her eye. Thankfully, she recovered well and can still see. I hated what they did back in the day by purposely getting us sick with chickenpox just to get immunity. You never know the lasting effects of any virus until years later, sadly. I don’t understand why they can’t just give out the shingles vaccines to those ages 30 and above. It just doesn’t make sense, especially when people are in their prime career phases between their 30s and 40s and truly need to maintain all the health they need to stay functional. I’m sorry you struggled with shingles in your mid-40s. I’m past my mid-40s, I think. I’ll be 47 this Sept.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are still a young woman, Dragonfly….oh to be 47 again. If your immunity is compromised in any way, you could be eligible to receive the vaccine early. I was already past 50 when I received it, but because I have ulcerative colitis and my immunity is suppressed by the medication I take, I would have been eligible. I took the pneumococcal vaccine in my early 50’s instead of 60 because of my immunity. It was the most painful shot I have ever received! Ouch! (And I am not a complainer) I agree about the age limit because someone can have a shingles flare at any age. I did not know we were allowed the chickenpox…gee whiz! All that suffering and the after effects later in life. Stupid decision. Are the children today vaccinated for chicken pox?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve had the pneumococcal shot twice – the 2nd one was in February 2021! 🙂 I was happy about that jab. I tried asking Medicare and the VA if they would approve of the two-series shingles shot, but they both said no and told me to wait until I was 50. I’m trying to do what I can to avoid getting shingles, but reducing stress is kind of hard to do during a pandemic. I felt like the pneumococcal shots were a piece of cake compared to the Moderna shots, LOL. I got the pneumococcal and influenza shots at the same time (one in both arms) in February 2021. About a month later, I got the first Moderna jab. Then I got the 2nd Moderna jab in March 2021. I feel like I’ll be somewhat safe from severe disease or death for at least 6 months – which puts me right around October to November 2021. My hope is to get the booster around that time, if they allow. Ideally, I’d like to get the shingles shot now, just to get that over with. I wanted 2021 to be the year of vaccines for me, LOL. I suppose I learned that from the military, since they are happy to jab everyone with everything – almost all at once. Anyway, I hope and pray that everyone here on Dr. S’s blog site remains healthy, strong, and safe from all harms – you included.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Much of it does, but each medical system has its own unique characteristics. Most people don’t realize that medicine, as it is practiced today, is a far cry from the days when Joseph Lister fought to persuade the medical community of the need for antiseptic surgical procedures. I’m speaking of approximately the last third of the 19th century. Standard practice was for surgeons to use the same uncleaned surgical equipment and gowns they’d used dozens or hundreds of times before. As to your fears, the choice is always the same: to weigh possible discrimination or serious medical side effects against the potential upside of vaccines and other medical interventions that can prevent or defeat diseases.

      Liked by 2 people

    • You are right on top of your health, Dragonfly….and it sounds like you are doing everything you can to keep yourself healthy. I wish nothing but good health, happiness and peace for you, because you certainly deserve it! 😊

      Like

  2. It would be great to see this article include DOs, NPs, and PAs, who often do the same type of work as MDs, especially in primary care! Speaking only about MDs (and using mainly male pronouns) reads to me as a bit exclusionary and archaic. Sincerely, a family nurse practitioner

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do not doubt the importance of the work you and your colleagues do. My intention, however, was to write specifically about MDs, who remain the largest single body of practitioners of the four you mentioned in the medical field. Physicians Assistants (PAs) numbered about 140,000 in 2019. There were approximately 985,000 licensed physicians in 2018, of which only 8.5% were osteopathic physicians (DOs). There were 270,000 nurse practitioners (NPs) as of 2018. These figures are always changing and, as noted, inexact.
      To have done justice to each of these estimable disciplines, I’d have had to note both their differences from each other in training and the medical roles they occupy. I do not doubt your statement that there is overlap. My point here is that my essay would have needed to be much longer and, I fear, might have missed the forest for the trees.
      Here are the definitions I found for the word “archaic” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
      “1 : having the characteristics of the language of the past and surviving chiefly in specialized uses an archaic word
      Note: In this dictionary the label archaic is affixed to words and senses relatively common in earlier times but infrequently used in present-day English.
      2 : of, relating to, or characteristic of an earlier or more primitive time : antiquated archaic legal traditions
      3 capitalized : of or belonging to the early or formative phases of a culture or a period of artistic development especially : of or belonging to the period leading up to the classical period of Greek culture
      4 : surviving from an earlier period specifically : typical of a previously dominant evolutionary stage
      5 capitalized : of or relating to the period from about 8000 b.c. to 1000 b.c. and the North American cultures of that time.”
      I’ll leave it to you to decide if your use of the word best fits your meaning. As to the notion of being “exclusionary,” I could have used more female pronouns and my writing would have benefited from doing so. I sometimes do better at this than at others.
      As I said before, I do not doubt the importance of the work you and your colleagues do. Concerning my own medical needs, I have benefited from the work of all the professionals you have mentioned, females and males, and people whose diverse backgrounds (to the best of my limited knowledge) include numerous people of color and a wide spectrum of religious beliefs deriving from the faith communities of multiple continents.

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  3. LOL… how did you know I tore my meniscal root and need surgery? Oct 8 is the magic day.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Sorry to hear this, Laura. I’ve had both the meniscus surgery and a full knee replacement, though I am a stranger to roots. If you want my perspectve, don’t hesitate to email me. In any case, good luck with this.

      Like

  4. lydiahopebakker

    Wonderful article! I loved the bit about surgeons needing confidence and not to be too concerned about their lack of compassionate bedside manners…. That they need to stay a bit removed from their patients. So, so true.

    Like

    • Thank you, Lydia. Perhaps you have noticed that the very qualities that enable our strengths or talents also reveal our weaknesses. Surgeons need the distance. We, their patients, wouldn’t otherwise benefit from their genius.

      Like

  5. Thanks for the guidelines, Dr. Stein. Seeing a doctor, even for my yearly checkup, is always a stressful experience for me. I usually write down the questions I wish to ask and have a record of my symptoms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you have the courage to get the checkup, Rosaliene. Too may do not. We see the way health anxieties can be easily weaponized in our current state of political polarization. Rationality often takes flight, as if, it too, loses heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing such an amazing blog. I think it is good that if the relation between doctor and patients is friendly. In those, the patient feels comfortable with the doctor. Same as in therapy cases if the patient feels comfortable and tells about their issue completely to the therapist then only the therapist can help them to overcome their issue.

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