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5 Reasons Why People Don’t Ask Their Doctor Questions

A neighbor of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer about the same time my wife was being treated for lung cancer. I saw my neighbor the other day for the first time in several years. I asked her how she was doing. She said great. In turn I asked her how her PET/CT exam looked. PET/CT scans are often done to make sure that one’s cancer hasn’t spread. My wife gets one every year.

My neighbor told me her doctor never told her she needed one, that mammograms would suffice. She went on to say a friend had also recently asked her if she had a PET/CT as well. “Maybe I should ask my doctor,” she told me. That was the same response she gave me the last time I raised the subject two years earlier: “I should ask my doctor.”
 
So Why Don’t People Ask More Questions?
 
My neighbor is not alone when it comes to asking their doctor questions. In an earlier post, I cited research which found that patients ask their doctor an average of two important questions during the office visit. According to researchers, there are five reasons why people don’t ask their doctor questions. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project, an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students, residents, and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery.  I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to help patients take control of their health. Dr. Marissa Camilon (MC) is an emergency medicine resident at LA County USC Medical Center, Dr. Craig Chen (CC) is an anesthesiology resident at Stanford Hospitals and Clinics, and Dr. Elaine Khoong (EK) is a resident in internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. Here’s what they had to say:

1. How would you characterize the patients who are most successful at “taking charge of their health?”

MC: They are usually the the patients who aren’t afraid to ask questions about everything- possible treatments, pathology, risk factors.

EK: I think there are several traits that make patients successful at modifying their health: 1) Understanding of their disease: patients need to understand how their actions impact their health and be able to clearly identify the steps they need to take to achieve their desired health. 2) Possessing an internal locus of control: patients need to feel that their health is actually in their control. Oftentimes, patients who come from families that have a history of chronic diseases simply assume certain diseases may be their fate. But in reality, there are things that can be done to manage their disease. 3) Living in a supportive, nurturing environment: behavior changes are difficult. It is often not easy to the right thing for your health. Patients that take control of their health have a support system that helps ensure they take the steps they need. 4) Having realistic expectations: improving your health takes time and thus it requires patience. Individuals must be able to identify the baby steps that they’ve taken towards improving their health.

CC: Patients must collaborate with their physician – the best patients come in motivated, knowledgeable, and educated so they can have a meaningful dialogue with their doctor. Medical decision making is a conversation; patients who are invested in their health but also open to their doctor’s suggestions often have the best experiences.

2. What do you see as the main causes of non-adherence to medical advice/plans?

MC: Not fully understanding his or her own disease process, denial/shock, inability to pay for appointments/rides/medications.

EK: I think there are several reasons that patients may be non-adherent. These reasons can largely be grouped into three main categories — knowledge, attitude, and environmental factors. Some patients simply don’t understand the instructions provided to them. Providers haven’t made it clear the steps that need to be taken for patients to adhere. In other cases, patients may simply not believe that the advice provided will make an impact on their health. Probably most frequently, there are environmental factors that prevent patients from adhering to plans. Following medical advice often requires daily vigilance and strong will power. The challenges of daily life can make adherence difficulty.

CC: In my mind, non-adherence is not a problem with a patient, but instead a problem with the system. Modern medicine is a complex endeavor, and patients can be on a dozen different medications for as many medical problems. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to keep up with that kind of regimen. Socioeconomic factors also play a big role with adherence. Patients who are poor struggle to maintain housing, feed their children, hold a job; how can we expect them to be perfectly medically compliant? Tackling the issue of non-adherence requires engagement into the medical and social factors that pose challenges for patients.

3. Could mobile health apps help your patients? Do you think “there’s an app for that” could revolutionize patient engagement or your interaction with your patients now or in the future?

MC: Apps, not necessarily. Most of patient population has limited knowledge of their mobile phones (if they even have mobile phones). If they do have a phone, its usually an older model that doesn’t allow apps.

EK: I absolutely think that mobile health apps could help my patients. I work at a clinic for an urban underserved population. For patients that work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, it is difficult to ask them to come into see a healthcare provider (particularly if the commute to see us requires 2+ bus rides). Unfortunately the patients who are working multiple jobs are often patients in their 40’s and 50’s when they start manifesting the early signs and symptoms of our most common chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease). Mobile applications have great potential to simplify the way through which patients can receive medical guidance especially helping the patients who don’t have the luxury to seek medical advice during normal work hours.

CC: I think there is a role for technology in the delivery of modern medical care. However, we have to keep in mind that not everyone has access to smartphones, and often the most medically disadvantaged populations are those who need support the most. Although initially, technology seemed to put a barrier between the clinician and the patient, I think as devices become more prevalent and we become better at using them, we’ll be able to use these collaboratively. The main advantage of an “app” or device is giving the patient more control over their health; they can track their sleep, diet, exercise, medication adherence, and other aspects of their health and work with their doctor to optimize it.

4. Do you know of any programs to improve health literacy that have been particularly successful or innovative? If so, describe. If not, what kind of initiative do you think could make a difference for your patients?

MC: I know that some of the primary care clinics in the county have started using texting for appointments reminders. Texting seems to be more accessible to our county population.

EK: Unfortunately, off the top of my head, I cannot think of any great programs that have increased health literacy. Part of the reason for this is that we really don’t have a great sense of what levers increase literacy. Any initiative that will work best honestly depends on the individual patient — each patient has different barriers that limit their health literacy. For some patients, their limited English proficiency is the greatest barrier. For other patients, there are cultural beliefs that must be considered in delivering health content. And for some patients, numeracy or general literacy is an issue. Unfortunately, I think there is no one size fits all solution for addressing health literacy.

CC: I don’t think there’s any magic bullet for health literacy. Different communities, patient populations, and clinical settings merit different interventions. For example, tackling child obesity in a neighborhood with lots of fast food requires a different program than ensuring prenatal health in an immigrant community.

5. Are there generational differences in how your patients interact with the healthcare system? Describe.

MC: I tend to see older patients since they usually have more medical problems. They are more likely to have a primary care doctor; whereas younger patients don’t come in as often, but don’t usually have access to primary care.

EK: I think more than a generational difference there is actually a cultural and socioeconomic difference. Traditionally, we are taught or somehow led to believe that older patients are more likely to simply adhere to medical advice whereas younger patients question. But in my limited experience, I have seen affluent patients more engaged with providers (bringing in their own resources, asking about health advice they’ve heard or read about). Some of my less wealthy patients seem more passive about their health and during visits. Furthermore, patients from certain cultural backgrounds are more or less likely to view healthcare providers as an authoritative figure rather than a partner in shared decision making.

6. Do you use digital systems (EMR/Social Media/Mobile) to interact with your patients in any way? Do you think you should do more of that, or that there is a desire for more on the part of your patients?

MC: We do have an EMR but don’t really use it to interact with patients. As I mentioned before, mobile texting may encourage patient interaction.

EK: The main way that I currently use digital systems to interact with patients is via email. Our clinic has a somewhat difficult-to-navigate telephone prompt system, so some patients email me directly re: changing their appointments, medical advice, or medication refills. Unfortunately our EMR doesn’t currently have a patient portal (although it will be rolling this out soon). I think a patient portal is a great tool for helping patients stay more engaged in their healthcare.

I think there is a role for SMS messaging to remind patients about appointments, important medications, or other healthcare related notices. For the right patient population, I think this could make a big difference.

In general, I am a big proponent of technology. I don’t think it’s going to be a panacea for our many problems in the healthcare system, but I think there are very specific shortcomings that technology can help us address.

7. What would your patients say they needed in order to be better educated about their health and have more successful healthcare experiences?

MC: More time with their physicians, mainly.

EK: Almost certainly simply more time with healthcare providers to better explain their health issues as well as more time to explore shared decision making.

CC: There is a lot of information out there about common illnesses and diseases, but not all of it is accurate or up-to-date. One challenge for patients is identifying appropriate resources written in a manner that can be easily read and understood with content that has been reviewed by a physician or other health care expert.

8. If you could pick only 1 intervention that could improve the compliance of your patients with their care/meds, what would it be?

MC: Increase the amount of time physicians have to answer questions with patients and discuss medical treatment options with them.

EK: Wow, that’s a hard one. I struggle to answer questions like this because I strongly believe that each patient is so different. Any non-adherent patient has his or her own barrier to adherence. But I suppose if I had to pick something, it might be some form of weekly check-in with a health coach / community health worker / health group class that intimately knew what the most important steps would be to helping that one patient ensure better health.

CC: I think that social interventions make the most difference in the health of underserved populations. For example, stable housing, healthy meals, job security, and reduction in violent crime will improve health including medical compliance far more than any medicine- or technology-based intervention.

Why Don’t Doctors Round With Nurses Anymore?

Whenever possible I make a point of rounding on patients with their nurses present. I rely on nurses to be my eyes and ears when I’m not at the bedside. I need their input to confirm patient self-reports of everything from bowel and bladder habits to pain control, not to mention catching early warning signs of infection, mental status changes, or lapses in safety awareness. Oftentimes patients struggle to recall bathroom details, and they can inadvertently downplay pain control needs if they don’t happen to be in pain when I visit them. A quick check with their nurse can clarify (for example) that they are asking for pain medicine every 2 hours, that they have missed therapy due to somnolence, that their wound incision looks more red, and/or that they haven’t had a bowel movement in a dangerously long time. All critical details that I wouldn’t necessarily know from talking to the patient alone. Some of this information is not accurately captured in the electronic medical record either.

On a recent trip to a new facility, I asked the head nurse when change of shift occurred. She was visibly perplexed and asked why I wanted to know. I explained that I planned to attend nursing sign out so that I’d be up to date on how my patients were doing. She raised her eyebrows to their vertical limit and responded, “I haven’t seen a doctor do nursing rounds in 30 years.”

That was one of the saddest things I’d heard in a long time. How is it that one of the fundamental features of medical care (doctors and nurses visiting patients together) has gone the way of the dinosaur? Most of my colleagues say they don’t round with nurses because they “don’t have time for that stuff” or that they can “flag down a nurse when there’s an issue” without needing scheduled communication. While I can sympathize with the fear of yet another “time suck” during a busy hospital day, I believe that rounding with nurses can actually save time, reduce medical errors, and head off developing problems at earlier stages (e.g. wound infections, intestinal obstructions, delirium, over/under medication and unwanted medication side effects).

You may think that coordinating nursing rounds with medical rounds is an insurmountable logistical nightmare, and if you have patients scattered throughout various floors of a hospital, that will certainly make things more difficult. But I have found ways to overcome these barriers, and highly recommend them to my peers:

1. Attend nursing sign out at change of shift if possible. Do not disrupt their hand-off process, but ask for clarification (or offer clarification) at key points during patient presentation.

2. Listen to the change of shift recording. Some nurses have their night shift team record their observations and findings in lieu of a 1:1 hand-off process during busy morning hours. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The good thing is that relaying information becomes asynchronous (i.e., like email vs a phone call – you don’t have to be present to get the info), the bad thing is that you can’t ask for clarification from the person delivering the information. If the nurses know in advance that the patient’s doctor is also listening in, they will leave targeted medical questions and concerns for you on the recording.

3. Do your rounds at times when medications are most commonly delivered. You will be more likely to run into a nurse in the patient’s room and can coordinate conversations as well as perform skin checks together.

4. Communicate with nurses (between rounds) when you are about to order a series of tests or dramatically change medication regimens. Explain why you’re doing it so they will be able to plan to execute your orders more efficiently (i.e. before the patient leaves for a radiologic study, etc.) This open communication will be appreciated and will be reciprocated (and may help to spark interest in joining you for regular rounds).

5. Invite nurses to round with YOU. If you can’t join their change of shift, consider having them join your medical rounds. You’ll need to negotiate this carefully as the goal is to streamline rounding processes, not double them.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine described a sign out process that reduced medical errors by 30%. This communication strategy involved 1:1 transfer of information about patients in a structured team environment (including nurses in some physician meetings). I anticipate that further investigation will reveal that interdisciplinary rounding (with nurses and doctors together) is a critical piece of the error reduction process. For all our advances in technology and digital information tracking, “old school” doctor-nurse rounds may prove to be more important in reducing errors and keeping our patients safe than other far more costly (and exasperating) interventions.

10 Steps To Finding A Good Doctor And Having A Great Healthcare Experience

I’m excited to announce that US News and World Report has invited me and some other social-media savvy physicians to participate in a live Twitter chat about how to find a good doctor. The chat will be held on Thursday, March 20th at 2pm EST. You can join the conversation by following the #DoctorFinder hashtag or take the pre-chat poll here.

Most people, including physicians, rely on personal references to find a good doctor. But what do you do when you’re far from home, or you don’t know anyone with firsthand knowledge of local doctors? My parents recently asked me to recommend a physician for them in a state where I knew none of my colleagues personally. This is the 10-step process that I used to help them navigate their way to an excellent specialist – I hope it helps others you find the right doctor as well!

1. Determine what kind of doctor you need. You’d be surprised how many different specialists treat the same symptom – depending on its underlying cause. Take “back pain” for example – should you see a primary care physician, an orthopedist, a neurosurgeon, an anesthesiologist, a rheumatologist, or a rehab specialist to evaluate your symptoms? That depends on the cause of the pain, which might not yet be evident to you. The first step to finding a good physician is to figure out which type is best suited to your potential diagnosis. Bouncing from specialist to specialist can be costly, so if you’re not sure which kind of physician specializes in treating your disease or condition (or if you haven’t been diagnosed yet), start with a primary care physician first.

If you’d like to ask an online physician about your symptoms (or find out which specialist would be the most appropriate for you or your loved one),  eDocAmerica.com is my favorite online physician consultant service (note that I answer questions for them.)

2. Compile a list of all the doctors (of the specialty you need) in your area. This list can be generated by your insurance carrier or by an online search of doctor-finder databases such as Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com, or US News & World Report’s Doctor Finder directory.

3. Narrow online choices by your preferences (available via  Healthgrades.com or Vitals.com databases.) Check out the doctors’:

  • Hospital affiliation(s)
  • Office location(s)
  • Educational background
  • Specialty interests
  • Languages spoken
  • Years in practice
  • Gender
  • Types of insurance accepted
  • Review CV if available (often on affiliated hospital website)
  • Check out patient reviews (take them with a grain of salt in case they are skewed by an unfairly disgruntled patient)
  • Make sure they’re accepting new patients
  • 4. Do an online “background check” of your top choices.

    5. Make an appointment – consider the following qualities in a good physician experience:

    • The team: courteousness of scheduling staff, professionalism of nurses, PA’s, techs, etc.
    • Facilities – cleanliness, comfort
    • Medical records/communication – how will they provide you your data? EMR? Email?
    • Timeliness/convenience

    6. Come prepared

    • Bring your list of medications
    • Bring a list of your medical and surgical history/conditions
    • Bring a list of your allergies
    • Bring contact information for your other physicians/providers
    • Bring your insurance information

    7. Ask the right questions

    • How many procedures (like the one I’ll need) have you performed previously?
    • What are the risks/benefits of the procedure? Alternatives?
    • What should I read to learn more about this?
    • If unsure of diagnosis: What else could this be?
    • Are there other medicines that are less expensive that we could substitute?

    8. Go with your gut

    • Did the doctor explain everything clearly?
    • Did the doctor seem to care about you?
    • Do you trust your doctor to be thorough with follow up?
    • Do you like your doctor?

    9. Get a second opinion

    • If the doctor did not meet your expectations in any significant way, find another one
    • If you want to be sure that you’re on the best path, get a second opinion from one of his/her peers or do it online: eDocAmerica (for generalist questions), Best Doctors (to be matched with top national specialists)

    10. Reward good doctors with good online recommendations so others can benefit. Physician ratings are only as reliable as the reviewers. Help other patients locate good doctors by promoting those who deserve it.

    The Magic Question That Every Patient Should Ask Their Doctor

    I realize that my blog has been littered with depressing musings on healthcare lately, and so I thought I’d offer up one very positive and “actionable” suggestion for all you patients out there. In the midst of a broken system where your doctor is being pressured to spend more time with a computer than listening and examining you, where health insurance rates and co-pays are sky-rocketing, and where 1 in 5 patients have the wrong diagnosis… There is one “magic” question that you should be asking your physician(s):

    “What else could this be?”

    This very simple question about your condition/complaint can be extremely enlightening. Physicians are trained to develop extensive “differential diagnoses” (a list of all possible explanations for a set of signs and symptoms) but rarely have time to think past possibilities 1 through 3. That’s one of the reasons why so many patients have the wrong diagnosis – which is both costly in terms of medical bills, time, and pain and suffering.

    There is a risk in asking this question – you don’t want to be over-tested for conditions that you are unlikely to have, of course. But I maintain that the cost/risk of living with the wrong diagnosis far exceeds the risk of additional testing to confirm the correct diagnosis. So my advice to patients is to keep this very important question in mind when you see your doctor for a new concern.

    In addition to asking this question of your doctor, you can also ask it during a second opinion meeting with another physician. The good news is that these days you don’t even need to get a second opinion in person. I myself have been working with an online second-opinion service called eDocAmerica for several years. Those who sign up for the service can pick the brains of board-certified U.S. physicians on any subject, 24-7 via email (and in some states via phone). The cost is extraordinarily reasonable when provided by employers, and winds up being about one or two dollars per member per month.

    If you have a complicated disease or condition (such as cancer) where experts may not all agree on the best treatment plan, a company called Best Doctors offers detailed chart reviews and second opinions from top specialists at academic centers. Again, this service is quite affordable and reasonable if the cost is spread among a group. Employers are able to pay a small fee per employee per month to enroll the entire company in the service.

    So why don’t all employers offer these benefits? I suspect that part of the reason is lack of awareness that second opinion services exist, and the other part is tepid demand on the part of employees. So if you’d like to make sure that you’re not one of the five people who have the wrong diagnosis, why not raise the question with your HR department? Enrolling as an individual is also an option, and still as inexpensive as about thirty dollars a month.

    My bottom line: make sure you ask your doctor the magic question at least once for every new concern that you have. And if you’re too shy to do it, or your doctor’s answer seems too short, then get a second opinion online or in person.

    This one little question could save your life.

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