Healthy Women Image

Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD

Full Bio
woman talking to a doctor

Tips for Talking to Your Health Care Provider

Key questions to ask at your next visit

Your Health

We've talked a lot about all the things health care professionals do wrong when it comes to communicating health information. But what about you? What is your role in the relationship? Well, as with any relationship, health communication is a two-way street. I know that I rely on my patients to tell me about any confusion they may have, or about things they don't understand, just as much as I rely on them to tell me where it hurts. So, speak up, if you don't understand something. If you have problems reading, tell your doctor or nurse. I promise you: They won't think less of you. Instead, I guarantee they'll try to find you the help you need, and, hopefully, improve the way they communicate with you.

But there is much more you can do. The Partnership for Clear Health Communication has created the Ask Me 3 program designed to help patients better understand the health information they get from their health care professionals. It works like this:

When you see your health care professional (and don't forget to include your pharmacist and dentist in that group) ask these three questions:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

When a medicine is prescribed or recommended, find out what you need to know and do in order to use your medicine safely. The National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE) recommends asking:

  1. What is the name of the medicine and what is it for?
  2. How and when do I take it-and for how long?
  3. What foods, drinks, other medicines, dietary supplements, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
  4. Are there any side effects, what are they, and what do I do if they occur?
  5. Will this medicine work safely with the other prescription and nonprescription medicines (including herbal and dietary supplements) I am taking?

If you still don't understand your condition or the suggested treatment after you've asked these questions, say, "I appreciate all you've told me. But I'm still not clear about . . . . Is there another way you could explain it to me?"

There are other things you can do, too. For instance, bring a friend or family member to your medical appointment. Make a list of questions and concerns to ask your doctor or nurse before your visit. Turn to your pharmacist for help when you have questions about your medications. NCPIE also offers comprehensive information to help you use your medication safely. To learn more, visit

Of course, if you've done everything here and you still can't understand the health information your health care professional is giving you, maybe it's time to find a new one.

Communicating Online with Health Professionals

Need a prescription refill? Want to let your nurse practitioner know your blood glucose levels? Try e-mailing your health care professional. As a busy physician, I know I find e-mail a convenient way to communicate with my patients about simple issues that don't require an office visit.

Unfortunately, though, studies find less than 10 percent of Americans communicate with their health care professionals via e-mail even though 65 percent of adult Internet users would like to.

If your health care professional is hesitant to use e-mail, explain that studies find it saves health practitioners time, can aid in preventive health care and may even be reimbursable by your insurance company. Also make sure you:

  • Only use the providers' e-mail address for legitimate health reasons. Don't forward jokes, add to mass mailing lists, or use it for personal reasons.
  • Don't try to substitute e-mail consultations for in-office consultations. You still need to see your health care professional face-to-face.
  • Follow any and all e-mail policies your health care professionals' office has set. Many are in place to protect your privacy.
  • Let your health care professional know what course of action you plan to take. In other words, finish the feedback "loop."
You might be interested in