“When I go to the doctor, I often find myself boxed in by all the yes/no questions. How can I get to the “how” and “why”?”

Doctors are trained to ask questions. Often, these questions become no more than a checklist of things that they have to go through. You have to make sure that your concerns are addressed--and even before that, that your story is being heard. Here are six ideas for how to do this.

Tip #1: Ask your own questions. If you’re posed a series of yes/no questions, it’s OK to answer, but also go on to explain your answers in more detail to fully convey your story. If you don’t understand why a particular question is relevant to your situation, ask about it. You may be surprised to find that the doctor himself doesn’t know and is only asking the question out of habit. On the other hand, you may find out that issues you wouldn’t have thought were related might actually be very important to tease out.

Tip #2: Interrupt when interrupted. If your doctor cuts you off when you try to explain your answer as a “how” and “why,” free to interject. Pretend you’re having a conversation, even when it feels like you’re being interrogated For example, if you’re asked “when did headache start,” rather than responding “9:30 am,” go ahead and tell your story of how the pain started: “I woke up this morning and I was fine, then I started walking to work and the pain came on suddenly like a lightening bolt striking me.” This is not a new tactic; a good attorney will often coach her client in advance to answer yes/no questions with a narrative so that answers can’t be taken out of context. Interrupting is a way to ensure that your entire answer is heard, not just the part that the doctor thinks he wants to hear.

Tip #3: Answer their pressing questions first. If they want you to describe the location of your chest pain, describe it (“it’s in the middle of my chest, right here”). If they want to know what you took to make it better, tell them (“I took an aspirin. It didn’t help”).

Tip #4: Attach a narrative response at the end of these close-ended questions. If they persist on asking close-ended questions, add your bit that may not so easily fit into a yes/no answer (“it’s in the middle of my chest, right here, and it started after I really pushed myself in swimming tonight”).

Tip #5: If you feel like your answers are not being heard, interject: “Excuse me, doctor, I have tried to answer all your questions, but I am still not certain my concerns have been addressed. Can you please help me understand why it is that I have been feeling fatigued and short of breath for the last two weeks?” and so on. You can take charge of the conversation at that point. It’s your body and your duty to advocate for yourself if you don’t feel like your story has been understood.

Tip #6: Make sure you are courteous and respectful to your doctor. Your doctor is a professional, and is probably trying her best to help you. You have a need to be heard and to tell your story, but make sure you present your point in a respectful manner. This will ensure that a good working relationship is present, and is critical to the active partnership you need to establish.

Read more:
Table of Contents
Jerry’s Story (excerpt from Chapter 3)
Danielle’s Story (excerpt from Chapter 5)
8 Pillars to Better Diagnosis (excerpt from Chapter 13)
Advice For Patients (excerpts from Chapter 14)

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