Five Reasons Why People Do Not Ask Their Doctor Questions

A neighbor of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer about the same time was wife was being treated for lung cancer.  I saw my neighbor the other day for the first time in several years.  I asked her how she was doing.  She said great.  In turn I asked her how her PET/CT exam looked.  PET/CT scans are often done to make sure that one’s cancer hasn’t spread.  My wife gets one every year.  My neighbor told me her doctor never told her she needed one…that mammograms would suffice.   She went on to say a friend had also recently asked her if she had a PET/CT as well.  “Maybe I should ask my doctor” she told me.  That was the same response she gave me the last time I raised the subject two years earlier, “I should ask my doctor.”

Pt-Doctor talking1So Why Don’t People Ask More Questions?

My neighbor is not alone when it comes to asking their doctor questions.  In an earlier post, I cited research which found that patients ask their doctor an average of 2 important questions during the office visit.

According to researchers, there are five reasons why people don’t ask their doctor questions.  These reasons include:

  1. Fear – fear of what the doctor may think of them, fear of what the doctor may say, fear of looking or sounding stupid in front of the doctor, fear of getting the wrong answer.
  2. The Doctor Knows Best – if something is important the doctor will mention it, if I need the test the doctor will order it, and so on.
  3. Not wanting to interrupt – office visits follow a clear pattern opening statement, medical interview and exam, diagnosis, treatment and closing.  Other than during their opening statement, most patients realize that the doctor does most of the talking.
  4. Not being asked by the doctor if they have any questions – studies show that physicians do not ask patients if they have any questions in more than 50% of office visits.
  5. Patient feels rushed – feeling that their question isn’t really all that important after all.

In my neighbor’s case, I suspect that “fear of knowing” the results of a PET/CT scan may be the overriding reason why she has not asked her doctor about having the exam.   Why invite bad news if you don’t need to.   Fear is a pretty strong motivator.  Strong enough in many instances to trump another strong motivator – one’s survival instinct.

Check out Why Patients Don’t Ask More Questions Part 2

If You Have A Question Write It Down And Give It To Your Doctor

One way for patients to ask their doctor questions is to write them down before the visit and give them to the doctor at the start of the visit.   That way patients can avoid having to worry about how or when to ask a question.  Physicians for their part should invite patient questions even at the risk of extending the office visit.


Roter, D. L. Patient Question Asking in Physician- Patient Interaction.   Health Psychology. 1984; 3 (5) 395-409.

Cegala, D.  Personal notes. 3/12/2010.