How you can teach patients to ask good questions

As busy doctors, it’s easy to feel sometimes as if there isn’t a lot of extra time for questions. However, it’s important to encourage patients to ask questions, because the process allows them to understand exactly what their problem is and what their treatment options are, so they have realistic expectations about what your treatment plan is and what you can do for them.


 “The truth is that the quality of the doctor’s answers depends on the quality of the patient’s questions.”
-Aniruddha Malpani, MD, medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India


Unfortunately, sometimes patients ask such poor quality questions that it can be difficult to provide intelligent answers. This is why doctors sometimes get so frustrated by patients who bring to their appointments lists of dozens of questions, and expect the doctor to answer all of them. The truth is that the quality of the doctor’s answers depends on the quality of the patient’s questions. The problem is that many patients are not[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]…

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] sophisticated enough to be able to differentiate between good-quality questions and bad quality questions.

Key Point: When it comes to patient education, doctors can play an important role in teaching patients the difference between good quality questions and poor quality questions. Encourage patients to do their “homework” prior to appointments using resources that you provide. That way, you can focus on the most critical information.

That’s where you come in. You can coach your patients so that they can ask better quality questions that will enhance communication and create a better experience for both you and your patients.

Pre-appointment homework

This needs to be a two-step process. First, you should ask patients to compile a list of generic questions, and they can do some pre-appointment homework online to answer the basics—using resources that you provide that are authoritative and reliable. If patients do this initial legwork properly, about 80% of their questions will already be answered before they come in to see you. This way, you can focus on the really important questions that apply directly to the patients’ individual conditions or problems.

You can encourage this approach by providing useful, accurate information for patients on your own Web site. This way, most of the generic questions have been answered before the actual consultation starts. This will save you a lot of time and also ensure that the answers to the generic questions are retained by the patient, because they have been clearly documented.

Studies have shown that patients forget about 50% of what their doctor tells them during the consultation; so, this kind of blended approach helps to ensure greater retention of information by the patient.

A win-win situation

Patients need to learn what questions to ask, and how to ask them. This is an important skill, which is worth acquiring, and doctors can play an important role in teaching patients the difference between good quality questions and poor quality questions. Broadly, if the question can be answered by doing a Google search that takes the patient to fact-based, reliable information, it’s not a good question for patients to ask you. Good quality questions are those that relate to the patient’s specific problem and that require you to tailor the information specifically to an individual patient’s condition.

This approach will create a win-win situation in which patients get satisfactory answers to their questions. You, too, will be happy because you’ve been asked intelligent questions, and your time has not been wasted on generic inquiries.

Aniruddha Malpani, MD Dr. Malpani is medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India, medical director of the HELP-Health Education Library for People, and author of a physician and patient education blog. He is an angel investor in Plus 91, which offers customized Web sites for doctors.

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