Tips for How to Be a Smart Patient

The right questions to ask to safeguard your health and well-being

March 2, 2006 — -- As a patient, what can you do to make sure you get the best medical care possible? Plenty, say Drs. Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz, who co-wrote "YOU: The Smart Patient."

Here are some of their tips.

Ask your doctor to wash his or her hands and swab the stethoscope. Most patients are embarrassed about having to insert themselves into the role of quality control. But, if a doctor puts an unclean stethoscope on you, he is exposing you to all of the bacteria that were on previous patients. It could be especially dangerous if you have a wound on your body.

When choosing a doctor, ask pharmacists and ER nurses for their recommendations. Don't choose your doctor the way most people do, by using the three A's: availability, affability and ability. Instead, focus your attention on the third A, ability. To gauge that, stop into your local hospital and talk to the ER nurses. They will have seen all the doctors in action. Or, ask your pharmacist. Pharmacists in this country are an underused resource for medical advice.

Check that your doctor is board-certified. You can check on the Web, or you can call your doctor's office and ask. Most doctors won't lie about it. There are only three answers to this question: yes, no, and "no, but I'm board-eligible," which means they haven't passed the tests to get certified, but they have been training to take them.

Ask your doctor's receptionist basic questions. When you call to make an appointment, find out whether the doctor is accepting new patients, which insurance plans are accepted, and where the doctor studied and did his/her residency. You should also find out who cares for the doctor's patients when the doctor is away and where the doctor has hospital privileges.

Give your doctor a detailed family history. You need to know which illnesses -- such as allergies, mental illnesses, cancer and heart problems -- run in your family. If anyone in your family died before the age of 65, you must tell the doctor, because chances are the cause was hereditary as opposed to environmental.

Tell the doctor all about your vices. Your doctor must know whether you smoke, drink or take drugs because it could impact the treatment plan.

Show your doctor every medicine you take. Bring all the medications -- both prescription and over-the-counter -- you take to your first visit. The general rule for something the doctor needs to know about is that if it's strong enough to help you, it's strong enough to hurt you. For example, if you are taking vitamins C and E, the doctor needs to know since they inhibit Lipitor, a statin drug.

Get a second opinion. One-third of the time, getting a second opinion changes your treatment, so you should always seek one out. Sometimes people don't get one because they are worried they are undermining their doctor. You aren't -- you're helping him.