When we look back through history, no matter what culture or country you hail from, one thing we all seem to have in common is a great respect for doctors. They have been called by many names including healers, physicians, medicine men, clinicians, medical practitioners and medics.
The greatest lesson I have learned from navigating my own complex medical journey is that doctors deserve our respect, but they are not all-knowing gods. Doctors are human beings just like us who have chosen to become the best they can at healing their patients. They are subject to all the pressures of life that each of us experience, with good days and bad days and a knowledge based on what they have learned and encountered in practice.
When we receive a serious diagnosis and require treatment, we are entering into partnership with one or more doctors. The effective communication within these relationships will directly impact your return to health. It’s important to realise that their advice is not a mandate, it is their best opinion based on their specific knowledge and experience. Think of it as the opening of a conversation rather than the conclusion. Your health depends on their diagnosis and recommended treatment, so it is imperative that you truly understand what they are saying and the best way to do that is to ask questions.
You have permission to ask as many questions as you need until you feel satisfied. No one expects you to have medical knowledge so there are no stupid questions. In fact, you may find that your medical team welcomes them.
1. Please explain how you came to this diagnosis?
It sounds obvious but clarifying exactly how your doctor has come to this conclusion is vitally important. Doctors can sometimes use complicated medical jargon, or gloss over certain areas, assuming you understand because you have asked no questions. They handle cases just like yours every day, so the medical language is perfectly normal to them while it sounds like gobbledygook to you. Questioning the reasons for your diagnosis will form the basis for understanding what is to come.
2. Why do you think this is the best course of treatment?
As we have established, your doctor’s treatment plan is his opinion of what needs to be done for the best outcome. With many diagnoses, there is more than one option available. Ask why he believes this is the way to go. If you do not feel comfortable with his recommendation, don’t be afraid to seek another opinion. My husband recently tore the ligaments in his shoulder. The specialist insisted he needed surgery and 12 months for recovery. This didn’t sit well with him, so he sought a second opinion and the subsequent specialist recommended strengthening the surrounding muscles without surgery. He went with the second doctor’s advice and now six months on; he has almost full use of his shoulder.
Not that the first specialist's treatment would not have worked, but by asking questions and seeking a second opinion, my husband could make an informed decision on what was right for him.
3. Will there be long-term effects?
From talking to past patients, I’ve heard many times that they are unhappy with the results of their treatment. This often lies in their expectation of a 100% recovery to their pre-diagnosis health. It’s important to find out if there will be any health issues that remain after discharge from medical care. This information helps you to make better decision about your treatment and to have a more accurate expectation of the outcome.
4. How long….?
If your treatment involves hospitalisation, it is not rude to ask how long your stay is likely to be. Finding out this information can help you have a determine what arrangements to make for the time you are away. If you need to take time off work, then another important question is to ask for an estimate of recovery time. Having some frame of reference to work from makes it easier to get through your treatment.
5. What will I be able to do when I go home from hospital?
I had to learn this one the hard way. A few years ago, I had to have a bilateral toe fusion meaning that my big toe on both feet had to have surgery. I expected to have one foot operated at a time. The surgeon talked me into having both feet operated on at the same time, assuring me that it would be fine, so I went ahead. I left the hospital with two feet bandaged up, unable to put my weight on them and instructed to keep them dry for six weeks. It sounds simple enough but how do you shower? Cook meals? Get to the bathroom? It was an extremely difficult six weeks. In hindsight, if I had known about the post-operative situation, I would have chosen differently.
The ultimate piece of advice I can offer you is to remember that you are the steward of your body. No one cares about your body as much as you, so do not hand over the decision-making to anyone else. Evaluate and understand what your doctors advise and make informed choices about your treatment and care.