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Encouraging Question Asking  

Monday, July 01, 2019
Cindy Brach and Geri Lynn Baumblatt

People often leave the clinician’s office without asking any questions. Some people think it’s not their place to ask questions, that the doctor would be insulted or doesn’t have time to answer them. Others go blank when a clinician asks, “Do you have any questions?” – only to think of many later on.


As one patient, Bill Lee, explained: “Some patients are reluctant to ask questions. I used to be like that myself. A doctor would tell me something and I’d say, ‘Okay, thanks.’”


After 7 heart attacks, Lee found a new doctor and started asking questions. Before he saw a doctor, he would make a list of his questions.


        “When I ask questions, I’m more likely to follow through with the advice from the doctor.”


Despite his history of heart attacks and diabetes, Lee said he felt better than he ever had. “If I hadn’t started to ask my doctors questions, I honestly think I would be dead today.”

Research confirms people are more likely to get accurate diagnoses and have better outcomes when they ask questions and communicate clearly with their healthcare team.

Inviting people to ask questions
Making people feel okay about asking questions is easier said than done. Patients and families can find clinicians intimidating even when they’re friendly. Coming from different cultural backgrounds and speaking different languages can also inhibit question asking. Furthermore, people may worry that their clinician will think they’re stupid if they ask questions.

Beyond asking people if they have questions, how do we invite and encourage them to ask?
One resource is in the AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit; it is called Encourage Questions. It suggests clinicians should invite questions verbally and with body language and involve office staff in encouraging questions as well.


Another strategy is to help people organize questions and other information ahead of time. AHRQ’s Question Builder helps people create a list of questions to take with them. And now a free Question Builder mobile app is available on the App Store and Google Play. The app lets people save their questions in an email or as a calendar appointment that allows for note taking during medical visits.


The app also integrates with a smartphone’s camera. People can snap a photo of important visual information such as an insurance card, a pill bottle, or a skin rash.

The app helps people formulate good questions.
It suggests key questions relevant to the type of appointment or issue they wish to discuss:

  • Health problems
  • Getting or changing a medication
  • A medical test
  • An upcoming procedure or surgery

For example, a suggested question many people may not think to ask or feel uncomfortable asking is:

        What will happen if I choose to not have treatment?


These suggested questions help normalize questions people may be afraid to ask. Seeing a question as part of a standardized list helps them know it’s okay to ask this question.


The app also helps people prepare to answer common questions their clinician may have for them based on the reason for their visit.


Mobile apps won’t solve the complex challenges of healthcare, but AHRQ’s Question Builder app is a free and simple way to help people overcome their hesitancy to ask questions and participate in their care.

Cindy Brach is a Senior Health Care Researcher at the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). She’s is the Co-Chair of the Department of Health and Human Services Health Literacy Workgroup.


Geri Lynn Baumblatt MA, For the last 20 years, Geri has worked to help people understand health conditions and procedures, orient them to their diagnoses, make more informed decisions about their care, and partner with their care teams.  She oversaw the creation of the Emmi program library, and she regularly speaks and serves on patient engagement, patient experience, health literacy, shared decision making, health design, family caregiving, and heath communication panels for organizations like AHRQ, the Brookings Institute, Stanford Medicine X, and the Center for Plain Language. She serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Patient Experience, is on the board of the Society for Participatory Medicine, and published a chapter in Transformative Healthcare Practice through Patient Engagement (IGI Global). She currently consults on patient engagement, family caregiving, and health communication. Follow her on Twitter @GeriLynn

Tags: patient engagement, communication, doctor's appointment, patient
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