Simple tips that empower patients to be more involved in the care of their own health.
Have you ever stepped out of a doctor’s office only to realise you had a burning question that you forgot to ask?
This is a common scenario for many patients. According to Ms Julia Ng, a member of the SingHealth Patient Advocacy Network (SPAN), many patients, especially those managing multiple conditions, may be too overwhelmed or afraid to probe further during a doctor’s visit.
Ms Ng shares her personal experience of being diagnosed with gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST), a rare form of sarcoma cancer, in 2019. The tumour was surgically removed and she has since been undergoing oral targeted therapy.
"Most visits with doctors last approximately 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the situation and condition. You can make the most of it by preparing five to six questions you have in advance," said Ms Ng.
Clarify your doubts
Another good practice is to record your medical history, existing prescriptions, supplements as well as alternative medicine taken and allergies, if any. It is advisable to share this information with your doctor because some medications and herbs may interact with the new treatments and drugs.
"Prior medical problems and medications can affect a patient’s subsequent tests or treatments. For example, a patient who is on blood-thinning medications may need to stop using them before going for a biopsy. These medications may also interact with the newly prescribed treatment to decrease its effectiveness or increase the side effects of either medications," said Dr Teh Yi Lin, Director of Cancer Education and Information Services, and Associate Consultant in the Division of Medical Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore.
<<Dr Teh Yi Lin, Director of Cancer Education and Information Services, and Associate Consultant in the Division of Medical Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore.>>
"As doctors, we aim to treat our patients holistically, hence it is important to balance our patients’ multiple medical issues," she added. Another area relates to dietary restrictions. This includes foods, supplements and home remedies to take or avoid. Dr Teh encourages patients to be proactive by taking a variety of nutritious food.
"One side effect of the drug I am taking is a reduction of white blood count and a weaker immune system. After checking with my doctor, I feel more confident knowing which supplements can be taken safely with my prescribed medicines. Take the initiative to ask questions and clarify your doubts, and allow medical professionals to advise you accordingly," Ms Ng said.
Other important questions you can ask your doctor include lifestyle changes, exercise recommendations, and alternative therapies you may be keen on exploring.
For many patients, information can help them better understand the length, effectiveness and cost of treatment, as well as side effects and complications that may come with certain procedures or treatments.
"Doctors will usually take the initiative to share many of these with patients, but if you need more information, do not be shy to ask. In some cases, this can help you decide if you want to proceed with the treatment," said Ms Ng.
Knowing what to expect next in the treatment plan or what other options are available can help patients anticipate and plan, take responsibility for their own healthcare, and ease anxiety from uncertainties.
Dr Teh cautioned that patients must be mindful and careful when researching on their own condition, especially with a plethora of information readily accessible on the Internet. "As every patient’s condition is different, not all advice online may be applicable. It would be good for patients to clarify with their doctor directly," she said.
Coping with treatment
It is only natural for patients to experience anxiety, especially when diagnosed with critical illnesses. In such cases, it is helpful for them to find out how the condition may affect their lives and that of their caregivers. Psychologists, counsellors or support groups can provide an important mental and emotional buttress.
"GIST is a rare condition, so only a handful of people were familiar with my condition. I was thankful to find a local and some international support groups, which enabled me to learn a lot about the disease and side effects through other patients’ and caregivers’ experiences," said Ms Ng.
Another useful tip is for patients to have a family member accompany them on visits where possible, especially if they feel unwell or stressed. Beyond providing support, the family member can also help ask important questions and take note of instructions.
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Common questions to ask your doctor
• What food can I take to improve my condition?
• I am currently taking a cocktail of supplements. Would any of these interfere with my medication? Should I
continue taking them?
• What should I do if I accidentally miss taking the prescribed drugs on a certain day?
• What kinds of exercise can I do to improve my condition?
• Is there any support group I can join?
• How do I monitor for symptoms or side effects?
• Are there any long-term effects?
• Are there alternative treatment options?
• How long would the treatment last? What is the long-term outlook with and without the recommended treatment?
• How much would the treatment cost?