Know what’s best for you

The more information you have, and the more you know, the better equipped you will be to make decisions, and ultimately achieve better health.

Making decisions about medical tests and treatments are some of the most stressful decisions you will have to make.

An added benefit of asking the 3 questions we recommend is that by asking the question, you are ready for the answer.

SO WHEN YOU ASK…

  • “What are my options?”

    You can expect to hear something like…

    “So, two things, I guess we need to talk about an anti-depressant and I’m wondering that you think about counselling.”

    or

    “Well what we can do for your earache is start some antibiotics or continue with good pain relief medication, such as paracetamol for example.”

  • “What are the possible benefits and harms of those options?”

    You can expect to hear something like…

    “Anti-depressants can lift your mood within a few weeks. They can give people memory problems, libido problems, maybe a little bit of vomiting and diarrhoea at the start.”

    or

    “If we go with antibiotics, the benefit is that we will clear up the infection sooner. The downside of antibiotics is that they can cause side effects like diarrhoea, rash or tummy pain.”

  • “How likely are each of those benefits and harms to happen to me?”

    You can expect to hear something like…

    “The side effects of anti-depressants happen in probably 20% or 20 people out of 100.”

    or

    “Antibiotics can quicken your recovery from ear infection. 5 out of 100 children will get the side effects we talked about, the rash, tummy pain or diarrhoea.”

Why knowing how likely the benefits and harms is important

Knowing how likely the benefits and harms are of a treatment you may undergo is important, as any treatment is almost never 100% successful.

It is important your doctor tells you how likely the benefits are.

For example, when deciding whether to take antibiotics for an ear infection it matters if your infection is from a virus or bacteria. If it is from a virus the benefit of taking antibiotics is almost zero.

Also if you are making decisions where lifestyle changes are an option. This might be you thinking about having a knee joint replacement.

If you are overweight the likelihood of a successful joint replacement is less if you don’t lose some weight before you have surgery. Just losing weight and building muscle can mean you don’t need the surgery.

Knowing information that may influence a decision you may make is key. Asking questions, sharing information about yourself by discussing your individual lifestyle, preferences and needs and then knowing the information you need to make an informed decision, is the goal.

The more a part of the decision you are, the more likely you are to succeed in getting the benefits of that treatment.

Strategies to help remember and understand the information you receive

If you know in advance that you are making a decision, take someone with you to your appointment: a second set of ears can be useful. However if you don’t have someone to accompany you, or if you didn’t think you would be making a decision, a good thing to do is to check you have understood as you go along.

Communication skills are an important part of health professional training and medical students are taught to ask patients to explain back to them what they have understood. Not all health professionals remember to do this, but it is still ok for you try this strategy.

This is also useful if you have already decided on a course of treatment, so you make sure you know what and when to take medications for example.

But is also important if you are going to go away and think about your decision and the options you have over a few days before making a decision.

Some ways to help with this are available here . Pen and paper are useful. You can either note the answers yourself or ask the doctor or nurse to do that for you. Click on the link and print out a sheet to take with you.

Another way to help you remember important information is to record the conversation you have with the doctor or nurse. This may seem odd, but patients who have tried this have said it is very useful. Ask your doctor if it is ok to do this to help you remember what he or she says and what you decide to do.

This may seem a big deal, but in some situations there is a lot of information flying back and forward and it is a smart solution to a well-known problem. Some doctors’ rooms have built-in facilities, and they can give you a copy on a CD for you to take home.

The other way is to take a recording device, these days most mobile phones have this option.

Watch the ASK film clip

Condensed Version – 1 minute

Brief Version – 4 minutes

Full Length Version – 9 minutes