Ask doctors questions to clarify health concerns

Here's the scene. You're in your health provider's office to receive results from recently taken medical tests. Your doctor looks up from your medical chart and says, "Mary Lou, I think what we have here is malignant."

Seems like a benign enough statement, except it is not benign, because it's "malignant."

But what if you don't know what the word "malignant" means? Studies indicate 18 percent of patients don't understand the meaning of that word.

They don't know "malignant" means cancerous. In fact, 13 percent don't know what "terminal" means, and 35 percent don't understand "orally."

A recent online commentary from (Harvard Medical School's consumer health information) says it like this: "When your mechanic tells you something is wrong with your car's shift differential, you may have no idea what he's talking about. And as long as he fixes the problem, it really doesn't matter that you know how he did it."

But when it comes to our own bodies and our own health we need to fully understand the problem before us and the options for "fixing" it.

If this illustration makes you think about doctor-patient communication a bit more than you usually do, there's a Web site worth checking out. It outlines the three questions to be asked every time we meet with a health provider.

First question: "What is my main problem?"

I recall leaving a doctor's office with my father-in-law after he had been told he had lung cancer and less than six months to live.

As we departed the clinic, he turned to my husband and said, "That went well, don't you think?"

Granted, Grandpa Johnson was way over 80 years of age at the time, with significant hearing difficulties and mild dementia, but that experience will be ever with me as a reminder of the challenges in communicating difficult-to-hear messages at any age, and the special issues for older adults with sensory loss and memory difficulties.

Second question: "What do I need to do?"

There's a story here as well. It involves a woman, newly diagnosed as diabetic, whose condition required daily insulin injections. She was instructed to practice on an orange. She does. But she ends up discharged from the hospital believing she has the option of injecting her insulin into an orange, after which she can peel and slowly eat the fruit.

It's often referred to as a lack of "health literacy" and it "cuts across age, race, income and educational level" according to Harvard authorities. Sometimes communication about the health problem is a bigger issue than the condition itself. Physicians have responsibilities for all this of course, but after all, it's our bodies that are under discussion.

Third question: "Why is it important for me to do this?"

We're more likely to do something if we understand the reasons. For example, get a prescription filled or eat less salt. Related to that, maybe there's another question or two. Like, what's the worst thing that could happen if I don't do this? How likely is that?

In order to get answers, we need to pose questions. Let's start asking them, one at a time.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at

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