Older adults often have a number of physicians who look after various aspects of their health. While physicians are experts in providing health care, most patients have much to learn when it comes to ensuring they get the best possible care.
“In some instances, older adults are reluctant to ask questions,” said Connie Stacy, RN and director of clinical services for Grace Living Centers. “Some may feel that by asking questions they are in some way being disrespectful, but it actually helps a health care provider do his or her job better.”
Stacy stressed that doctors and nurses want to answer any questions patients or family members may have, but can’t do that unless they know what those questions might be.
Marie Bernard, M.D., agrees. Bernard is a geriatrician with OU Physicians Senior Health Center and chair of the Department of Geriatrics at the OU College of Medicine.
“I believe that the best patient is a well informed patient,” she said. “To be well informed in terms of your own health and the care you receive, you really have to ask questions of your physician, your pharmacist or other health care provider.”
Bernard added that with a little coaching and preparation, older adults can learn to be a better patient. She said they should start by doing some homework before their next visit to the doctor or health care provider.
Doctors today are as busy as ever. Typically, each patient is with his or her physician for no more than 15 minutes. So it is important to make every minute count. Bernard and Stacy stressed the best way to do that is to prepare for the visit beforehand.
“Write down any questions you might have in advance and bring along a pen and paper to write down the answers when your doctor visits with you about those questions,” Stacy suggested. “It’s amazing how much you can forget about what your doctor told you even when you know the questions you will ask in advance. That’s why it is important to take notes.”
If not feeling well and that’s for the visit to the doctor, Bernard suggested that a list of symptoms be made ahead of time.
“When did the symptoms begin? How long have they lasted? Have you taken any over-the-counter medications? These are all questions your doctor will want answered," she said. "I find it is also a good idea to bring along a list of the medications you currently take. Be sure to write down the doses and how often you take them and don’t forget to include any vitamins or other supplements you may take on a regular basis.”
Bernard said such information is very important for a physician when deciding which medications to prescribe.
Other tips to help that visit to the doctor’s office go smoothly include: arriving early enough to fill out any forms that might be needed, making to bring all insurance cards with any medical records the doctor may need to properly evaluate the situation.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Bernard said. “I welcome questions from my patients and believe all doctors and health care providers should because those questions can help us do our job better. If you don’t understand what the doctor or nurse is telling you, then ask him or her to explain it again.”
Stacy said a friend or family member can also assist in that regard. “Often an elderly loved one may be reluctant to speak up and let the doctor or nurse know that he or she didn’t hear the answer or understand what it meant. A friend or family member can step in and say, ‘I’m not sure we understood what you meant by that would you mind explaining it one more time.’ By saying ‘we’ instead of your loved one’s name, you help ensure that you won’t cause any embarrassment,” she said.
Both Stacy and Bernard stressed that it is important to be sure a patient never leaves their doctor’s office without understanding everything he or she was told. If not, don’t, don’t be afraid to speak up and say so.
“Health care providers are in the business of helping patients and part of that job is sharing information. There really are no stupid questions,” Stacy said.
Don’t Keep Secrets
It turns out what a doctor or health care provider doesn’t know could hurt. Bernard said it is really important for patients to understand that the doctor can’t properly assess any situation with only part of the health picture.
“Don’t keep secrets,” she stressed. “You want to be sure to let your doctor know about all of the symptoms you are experiencing and all of the medicines you are taking. The more information we have, the better able we will be to figure out what’s wrong and ensure you get the proper treatment.
People Do Forget
Even well-prepared patients occasionally forget to ask something. “We all get nervous at times or get in a hurry to get somewhere else and sometimes just miss something,” Bernard said. “If that happens to you, don’t be afraid to call the doctor’s office and ask your question.”
Bernard added the doctor may not be able to take the call at that precise moment, but most will get back to the patient as soon as they can. If the question is urgent, it is important to let whoever answers the phone know that too.
“The best health care involves a team,” she said, “and the patient is the most important member of that team.”