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Embarrassed to ask questions at the doctor? 5 tips to open the conversation.

If you’ve ever gone to the doctor and left feeling more confused than when you went in, you are not alone. Hearing complex medical information can raise questions, and we don’t always feel comfortable asking our doctors to clarify when we don’t understand something.

When I first got sick with a chronic illness, I felt like my doctors were speaking another language. They were throwing around six- and seven-syllable words I’d never heard before. I hadn’t taken a human anatomy class since the ninth grade, and I remembered virtually nothing (besides “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”).

I just sat there in the doctor’s office and nodded. All this information was overwhelming and scary. I didn’t know what to ask first. Sometimes I felt rushed during appointments, so I figured I’d look up these terms later, on my own time.

The truth is most Americans have at least some trouble understanding basic health information and making good health care decisions (PDF). Even people with very high education levels can struggle with health literacy.

One reason why people struggle to make good health care choices is that they’re embarrassed to ask questions. But getting the most out of your doctor’s visit means being totally honest when you don’t understand instructions or medical terms.

Here are some ideas to help you open up the conversation with your doctor.

1. Come with questions written down

Chances are you’ll have some questions about your symptoms before you even visit your doctor. Or if you’re visiting for a follow-up appointment, you may have questions about your last visit or test results. Write these questions down ahead of time.

This way, you don’t have to try to remember everything in the moment, which can be hard to do if you’re feeling flustered or overwhelmed. And if you’re too embarrassed to ask a question out loud, you can just hand your written list to your doctor.

2. Be honest about your embarrassment

Being honest about your feelings can help break the ice. I’ve often started a conversation with my doctor by saying, “This might seem like a silly question, but…”

Truthfully, there are no silly questions when it comes to understanding your health. But being upfront about any insecurities you’re feeling might help ease you into the conversation.

If your question is about a sensitive or particularly private medical issue, you might say, “I’m a little embarrassed to talk about this, but…”

Your doctor should be sympathetic to how difficult it can be to approach these topics. He or she should make you feel at ease and answer any questions you have.

3. Take a loved one with you to your appointment

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in this one. But if and when it’s safe to bring visitors to appointments, it can really help to have another set of eyes and ears in the room.

A loved one can ask questions for you if you’re uncomfortable doing so. They can also take notes during the appointment to help you remember any instructions your doctor provides. Talk to your loved one before the appointment if you have specific questions you’d like them to help you approach.

4. Summarize what you’ve heard

Before you leave the exam room, repeat back to your doctor what you’ve heard them say.

For example:

“My takeaway from this appointment is that I have high blood pressure. To help lower my blood pressure, I need to take this new medicine once in the morning and once at night. Did I get that right?”

That way, if there are any misunderstandings, your doctor can clarify before you leave.

I like this approach because it puts the responsibility on your doctor to repeat anything you may have missed, rather than you having to ask a million questions.

5. Apply these practices to your insurance company, too

Everyone has questions about health insurance. At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, we want to make health insurance simpler.

If you have questions about your plan, call the number on the back of your insurance card. The people on the other end of the phone are there to help.

You deserve the highest quality of medical care. Don’t let anything get in the way of asking any questions you have.

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