You already know to ask your doctor about odd lumps and bumps. You might even turn to your physician for advice about quitting smoking or managing your stress. Many patients, however, forget that an annual checkup offers a comprehensive window into overall health. Your doctor can help you better understand your symptoms, offer useful lifestyle changes, and refer you to a specialist when necessary. So don’t forget to ask these questions at your next check-up — even if you don’t find them on the typical list of questions to ask your doctor.

1. Is Google right about my symptoms?

Almost everyone has had the experience of Googling symptoms only to become convinced they’re dying of a rare and fatal disease. Don’t let embarrassment deter you from asking your doctor about health information you find online — particularly when it contradicts your doctor’s advice. Some questions to get you started include:

  • What sources of medical news and information do you trust?
  • What are some symptoms that are always an emergency?
  • Google told me something different. Can we explore other alternatives, or can you explain to me why my research is wrong?

“I appreciate this question from my patients,” said Dr. Lisa Doggett, a board-certified family physician in Austin, Texas. “It shows that they have taken the time to try to learn what may be causing them to feel bad, but it also shows that they don't necessarily believe everything they read. Often my question back to them will be, ‘What did Google say about your symptoms?’ and ‘Which websites or references did you use?’”

Dr. Doggett said she uses Google all the time and thinks it's a great tool, but she added that it’s important to be able to identify reliable websites and know where to turn for accurate information. You can always ask your doctor if the medical advice you found online is reliable and trustworthy.

2. Could changes to my skin, hair, or nails signal a medical problem?

Think your skin concerns and brittle hair are only superficial concerns? Think again. The health of your body affects how your hair, skin, and nails appear. So ask your doctor about any significant changes. Some points to highlight include:

  • Skin changes such as growing or misshapen moles, intense dryness, rough and bumpy skin, new or worsening breakouts, or sudden skin sensitivity.
  • Hair loss, changes in hair texture, or slowing hair growth.
  • Changes in your nails, especially if the nails are pitted, have ridged, or are falling off. Nail discoloration could be a sign of psoriasis, a fungal infection, or another condition that demands medical treatment.

3. Are my emotions normal?

“My answer to this question - and I think almost any good doctor's answer to this question - is almost always ‘Yes,’” Dr. Doggett said. “I think it's fair for a patient to ask this question if he or she needs validation, and the doctor should freely give that validation. Everyone is different, and a wide range of emotions could be ‘normal’ in any given situation.”

While having a range of emotions is totally normal, and you shouldn’t be shy to talk about them with your doctors, it is important to realize your mental health is part of your physical health. Understand that certain changes in mood or emotions might indicate an underlying health problem. Hormonal shifts, endocrine system problems, diet, and lifestyle can all affect your mood. Yet many people feel embarrassed by their emotions and mood swings. Make your mental health a topic of discussion with your doctor. Be sure to ask about:

  • Recent changes in your mood, particularly if you experience very intense moods.
  • Whether any mental health symptoms might play a role in your physical health. For instance, there is a link between depression and chronic pain.
  • Steps you can take to improve your mental health.
  • Whether you should consider seeing a therapist or psychiatrist.

4. Does my sex life reveal something about my health?

Many people think age-related changes to sexual health are unavoidable. Women might mistakenly believe sex has to hurt after menopause, while men see erectile dysfunction as an unpleasant but inevitable fact of growing old. In fact, your sex life provides valuable clues to your overall health. Erectile dysfunction, for instance, can be a sign of heart disease.

Even when sexual difficulties are technically normal — such as an age-related decrease in libido — there’s often plenty you can do to change things. Ask your doctor about:

  • Changes in libido, particularly if they appear unconnected to your relationship or stress level.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Difficulty sustaining an erection or having an orgasm during sex.

5. What are my biggest health risk factors — and can I change them?

You need to know your personal health risk factors — whether it’s a strong family history of cardiovascular disease or those extra 30 pounds you’ve carried for the last 10 years. Ask your doctor about these risk factors, as well as what you can do to reduce their impact. Even if something is genetic, it may remain partially within your control. Some research suggests that exercise can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease among people with a genetic risk.

6. How can we customize treatment to meet my health goals?

Most doctors recommend a standard list of treatments. The first line of defense for someone with diabetes might be standard dietary changes. A woman expecting to deliver a breech baby may hear that a Cesarean section is her best option. But everyone has different treatment goals. Culture, religion, and a host of other factors can color these goals.

Talk to your doctor about your specific treatment needs. Some things to highlight include:

  • Whether you prefer to prolong your life or reduce pain when you have a terminal illness.
  • Whether specific cultural values determine which treatment is appropriate. For instance, if your religion prohibits blood transfusions, this may alter your doctor's medical advice.
  • Whether you have non-medical treatment goals. A woman with a traumatic birth experience might value lots of information and plenty of control.

7. What happens if I ignore your advice?

“I think this is an important question, especially if a patient is thinking of ignoring my advice, though I'd prefer that it be asked in a different way,” said Dr. Doggett. She says it might be better to say, "I'm not sure I'm comfortable doing what you're suggesting. What would be the likely consequences if I don't follow your advice?"

Doctors appreciate the honesty of someone admitting they aren't going to follow recommended medical advice. If someone confessed to Dr. Doggett that they were planning to ignore her recommendation, she said she would reply by asking, "What is it about my suggestions that is making you uncomfortable?" Then she would try to adjust the treatment plan “to something that seems more doable for my patient.”

Some medical recommendations are close calls. Others are the only appropriate option. If you ask your doctor what might happen if you ignore their advice, it will help you make better decisions. It’s especially important to bring this up if you’re concerned about the pain of treatment or your ability to stick with a treatment regimen. An understanding of the potential effects of ignoring medical advice can also be a strong incentive to follow your doctor’s recommendations.

8. How can I save money on care?

“A lot of doctors don't know how much the medicines, labs, other tests, or specialty care that we order is going to cost,” Dr. Doggett said. “It's a major flaw with the way our healthcare system is set up.”

Because medical care is expensive, not everyone has the luxury of freely choosing from a set of medical recommendations. That doesn’t always mean missing out on quality care. Some providers offer discounts to patients who have no insurance or who pay out of pocket. There are always options available for people who need to find affordable healthcare. 

“Especially if a patient is paying out-of-pocket for his or her care, the doctor should help to determine costs of different aspects of care ahead of time, as much as possible.” Said Dr. Doggett. “The doctor can try to prescribe generic medicines when possible, and inquire about discount programs at pharmacies, labs and even radiology centers.”

Don’t shy away from discussing financial issues. They affect your stress level, and therefore your health. They can also color your decisions.

9. How can I change my lifestyle to avoid taking medicine? 

Dr. Doggett said she would like it if more patients asked her this question. There are often changes that patients can make about the way they are eating, exercising, or otherwise managing their health that can help them avoid medical treatment.

“Too many people expect their doctor to prescribe a medicine to 'fix' them,” Dr. Doggett said. “I'd like to see more patients asking about strategies to take charge of their own care, realizing that they have the power to make important changes to optimize their health and well-being.”

Your doctor is your partner in the fight for good health. Treat them like a trusted advisor and confidante, and you’ll get quality medical advice tailored to your unique treatment goals and medical needs.