When you have a health problem, it's always important to understand what it is, what its course may be, and how it is treated. When you have a chronic disease such as arthritis, it's even more important. In chronic illness, you may not get all your questions answered right away - because you may not even think of them. But over time, you get an opportunity to develop an important partner relationship with your physician.
The day before every doctor visit, you should make time to sit down and make a list of anything that has been troubling you since your last visit - any changes in your symptoms, concerns about medications, or lifestyle issues, such as those related to exercise or sexuality - as well as any questions you have.
Early in the course of your relationship with your physician, you may want some or all of the following questions answered by your physician. Over time, you may want to ask some of these questions again - because the answers may change as your disease progresses or comes under control, as new therapies are developed, or as you age. You can use this list to develop your own question checklist for each doctor visit.
Your Diagnosis and General Treatment
- What is my diagnosis? What kind of disease is this - and what do doctors know about its cause?
- What are my treatment options? What are the goals for my treatment?
- What are the risks of treatment - and the risks of not treating at all?
- What is the likely course of my condition - the long-term outlook?
- What complications could develop as a consequence of my condition? Could it affect other parts of my body - my eyes, heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, or gastrointestinal system? Is there anything I can do to help prevent this from happening?
- Might surgery be of any help to me now or in the future?
- I also have (any other chronic health problems). How will my arthritis or its treatment affect my other disorder(s) and their treatment?
- Do I need any special dental care because of my condition?
- Do I need any special adaptive devices, such as a cane, walker, built-up chair, etc., and if so, how should I obtain them?
Make sure your physician knows what medications and supplements, such as vitamins, you already take on a regular basis. Then, in addition to those guidelines, for each medication prescribed, you should know:
- What are the brand and generic names?
- What will it do and how long will it take to work?
- How often do I take it, and what should I do if I miss a dose?
- Are there any special instructions for taking it, such as with or without food, at bedtime, etc.)?
- Are there any OTC (over the counter) drugs that I should avoid while taking this medication, such as antacids, laxatives, NSAIDs?
- Are there any foods that I should avoid while taking this medication, such as grapefruit juice?
- Is there a generic version of this medication and, if so, do you recommend it?
- What side effects might I develop? What, if anything, should I call you about immediately?
- How often should I come in for hidden side effects check-ups, such as blood pressure check or blood tests? Should I be checking my blood pressure at home?
Your Contact with Your Physician
- If my symptoms change or I develop new symptoms, how should I contact you - by phone or by coming in for an appointment? What, if anything, should prompt an urgent, same day appointment with you?
- In the absence of symptom change, how often should I come to you for a check-up for my condition?
- When should I consult/see you, as opposed to my primary care physician?
- What is the best time of day/week (if any) to call you?
- Can I communicate with you by email?
- Who covers for you when you are unavailable?
- Are there other specialists whom I should be consulting about my condition, its possible complications, or medication side effects, such as a dermatologist, pulmonologist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, gynecologist, ophthalmologist, orthopedist, or podiatrist?
Exercise and Physical Therapy
- Do I need physical therapy? If so, will you give me a referral for physical therapy?
- What exercise can I do - and how often? Will specific exercises help my condition? Are there specific exercises I should avoid? Is there a specific type or school of exercise that I should start, such as Pilates, yoga, aerobics, or strength training?
- How can I know when I should persist exercising in spite of pain vs. when I should take a break for a few days?
Lifestyle and Family Issues
- I do (type of work and/or hobbies). Will my condition impair my ability to do this in the future? (OR: How can I get help from an occupational therapist or other sources because it is already impairing my ability to do it?)
- What can be done to help the fact that my condition is impairing my ability to have sexual relations because (explain it - such as vaginal dryness, knee or hip pain, etc.)?
- Will my condition or its treatment affect my ability to have children? Are my children likely to inherit this condition?
- Are there any diet modifications that will help this condition?
- Are there any alternative medicines or integrative medicine techniques (such as massage, relaxation therapy, or acupuncture) that will help my condition?
- I am having emotional difficulties (depression, anxiety, etc.) because of my condition. Can you recommend a therapist to help me cope more effectively?
- I have (or plan to have) special concerns (explain them). How will my condition and/or medication affect these concerns?
Learning More About Your Disease
- What are the local support groups or foundations that are available to me?
- What books, Websites, or other materials do you suggest I read about my condition?
Finally, remember that your relationship with your physician is a two-way street. You don't just ask questions and get answers. You have to provide information to your physician in order to assure your best care. Your physician-patient relationship needs and deserves nurturing just as any relationship does.
Diana Benzaia, MA
Patient & Professional Education Editor