The Five Questions Patients Should Ask Their Doctors

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I once had a patient in whom I found a small breast lump. She was only thirty-two, and the lump was soft, non-tender, and mobile. But it was new. She examined her breasts monthly and was certain that she hadn’t felt it the month before. And she had a family history of breast cancer.

So, I asked myself, what to do? Her age—as well as the lump’s characteristics on exam—made the likelihood that it was cancer quite low. She had a lot of fibrocystic changes in her breasts (meaning they were lumpy to start with), and this was most likely a benign lump that had enlarged from a smaller one that had been present before but that had simply gone unnoticed in a field of lumps. But the family history of breast cancer was in a first-degree relative.

I was midway through these deliberations when I realized I’d failed to include her in them. Which made me think about how often doctors fail not only to make their reasoning transparent to patients but also to reason at all. Often, doctors, like everyone else, work out of habit. If you go to a surgeon, for example, you’re far more likely to end up having surgery than if you go first to an internist simply because—to state the obvious—surgeons perform surgery. What’s not obvious, however, is how easy it is for doctors to offer what lies in their own armamentarium without bothering to ask themselves if they should. You have a cough? Fine, take these antibiotics. You have a lump? Great, let’s take it out. But these answers aren’t always correct.

Luckily, patients have a recourse. They can force their doctors to reason through problems by asking them questions. Here, then, are five questions every patient should ask when a doctor offers them a treatment of any kind:

  1. What’s the likelihood it will help you? For many treatments, this answer is known. Which doesn’t, of course, mean your doctor will know it. Doctors love to quote numbers based on nothing more than their experience or even their gut feelings. And, in fact, this is sometimes the best method available; not every question we can ask in medicine has been studied. But if it has been studied, that’s where your doctor’s answer should come from. So ask specifically where his answer comes from. And if your doctor is answering you based on a study, ask him how similar you are to the patients who were studied. If they were the same age, gender, ethnicity and had the same condition, generalizing the results of the study to your circumstance is something you can do confidently.  If they’re different from you (and they mostly will be to some degree) ask your doctor how confident he is generalizing the results of the study he’s quoting to someone like you. Try to get an actual number out of him, a percentage chance that you will improve if you have the treatment done.
  2. If it does help, how much will it help you? Just because a treatment makes you better doesn’t mean you should automatically have it done.  What if you’re in horrible pain from a herniated disc and your internist offers you morphine. Certainly, you think, that will make you better. But what if it only makes you slightly better? What if you still can’t function? Then morphine isn’t the answer.
  3. What is the likelihood it will harm you? No intervention—absolutely none—is without risk. Some risks are tiny (e.g., the risk of a blood draw) while others are large (e.g., the risk of open heart surgery in a ninety-year-old with heart failure). Knowing the baseline risk of any intervention is a must. How else can you weigh it against the benefit you learned about when you asked questions #1 and #2?
  4. If it harms me, how much will it harm you? And how bad will that harm be? If you have a 1% chance of being harmed by an intervention but the harm we’re talking about is death (as opposed to paralysis or just transient post-operative pain), you’re going to think about the likelihood of that harm very differently.
  5. What’s likely to happen if you don’t do it? Never, never forget to ask this one. Doctors, again, are just like everyone else peddling their wares: they do what they’re trained to do. And what they’re expected to do. Which means when you come to a doctor with a problem he’s going to try to solve it, and solve it with the tools at his disposal. It’s the rare doctor who will ask himself, “Do I need to do anything at all?” Yet many problems, it turns out, fix themselves. Then again, many don’t. A good doctor knows the difference. Or at least, the likelihood that a problem might fix itself. So always ask what your doctor thinks is the natural history of your particular problem. Most back pain, for example—even from a herniated disc—eventually gets better on its own and doesn’t require surgery (if you can adequately control the pain with medication).

And most breast lumps turn out to be benign. But though my patient lacked most of the risk factors that would have made me suspect her lump was malignant (i.e., it wasn’t firm, fixed, or large), she did have that family history. So I raised and answered the five questions above for her, and we discussed the answers. And she decided to have the biopsy. It was, in fact, benign. Unfortunately, she developed a rare complication from the biopsy, an infection. Which we treated with antibiotics. Which she turned out to be allergic to. In the end she was fine, but she ended up illustrating the very point I made to her: outcomes are often in doubt and which course is best is often difficult to say. If you have a suboptimal outcome from a treatment, at least if you and your doctor thought through all the risks and benefits you can content yourself you made the best decision with the data you had available at the time.

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  • As usual, an excellent post, Alex! My inccurable disease of diarrhea of the mouth combined with the characteristic of needing to think out loud and come to conclusions as I speak has actually served me well as a primary care physician! Yet another example of leveraging your strengths! 😉 Excellent questions for every patient to ask! I shared a similar story, but with a less fortunate ending on my blog on the ACP’s solution to tort reform for any who are interested. Tough issues for all of us!

  • But…what happens if there is no time to ask such questions…

    My 85-year-old father was living at home and getting around fairly well, with little outside help a.m. and p.m. Mid-April he had emergency surgery for gallbladder attack and the following day another emergency surgery for pancreatitis, and a blocked duct. He never fully recovered from the anesthesia and is now in a memory care unit. He lost a part of his essence…He does not always recognize us and often is somewhere back in time.

    I will keep a list of these questions for future reference.

    Thanks, Alex

    Astrid: So sorry to hear about your dad. Even in an emergency situation, these five questions are what every doctor should ask himself—especially in emergency situations, in fact. Stopping to explain such reasoning to a patient and his or her family is unfortunately a step that’s often skipped.


  • Thanks for what is my first post. Very spot on. I practice Buddhism, and in my experience attachment is an ongoing challenge, which I feel freer some times than others. I am now reading through your former posts. Thanks and keep up the good work.


  • The term “P4 Medicine” is often quoted as the future of healthcare, where the 4 P’s stand for: Predictive, Preventive, Personalized, and Participatory. I think in this post you have very nicely highlighted the importance of the 4th P—”Participatory.” Thanks!

  • Could you at some point, Alex, apply this advice to 1) prescribing/taking medication; and 2) diagnostic tests.

    Some patients will want “alternative medicine” options. Can these fit into your 5-questions framework?


    Chris: I certainly can and will.


  • You have given great direction with this superb essay. How do you feel about patients asking you “What would you do doc?” and how frequently are you asked that question?

    Giselle M. Massi

    Giselle: I think that’s a great question to ask a doctor, though the doctor needs to be clear he or she is answering that question with his or her values, not the patient’s. I get it occasionally.


  • I would add that if you need surgery, how many times has the doc done that specific operation (over how many years), and what was the outcome?

    001mum: That’s a great question. Research shows the risk of complications and likelihood of a good outcome in surgery is related to the number of time the surgeon has performed the operation in question more than anything else.


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  • Very good although I hate to think of doctor as “peddling” their products. Sounds like they should have a wagon with things hanging off it like when Coca Cola first started.

  • Hi Alex, great column! You are more enlightened and informed than the average primary care doctor. My husband and I have each had some experiences where we paid a price for listening to primary care doctors. Then it’s been a specialist who got us on the right track.

    What do you think are good ways to evaluate a primary care doctor’s answers to these questions you’ve written here? How do we know if we’re getting the best information?

    Leslie: Unfortunately, patients often don’t have a good way to do that. Pay attention to your doctor’s thinking; is he or she logical in his or her reasoning? Often, you can look up the studies he or she references yourself (and even ask him or her for the reference). Other than that, a second opinion is your best bet.