How to Question Doctors and Nurses — Without “Challenging” Them

By Barbara Ficarra

I think there is a huge difference between challenging a doctor or nurse and simply questioning a doctor or nurse.

team2-14In yesterday’s The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “Finding a Way To Ask Doctors Tough Questions,” Laura Landro writes:

“Despite efforts by advocacy groups and others to empower patients, challenging a doctor  or nurse on whether they are correctly doing their jobs remain downright intimidating. Signs and posters in hospitals urge us to “Speak Up” if we see a potential medical error. More nurses wear buttons these days that say “Ask Me If I’ve Washed My Hands.” But even the most outspoken and assertive among us may suddenly turn meek when we are sick or vulnerable in a hospital, fearing that our treatment will suffer if we antagonize caregivers.”

As a long time nurse, let me try to offer some perspective on this.

First and foremost, you as a patient need to be proactive and take charge of your health. You need to be an empowered patient. If you have a trusted family member with you, all the better so they can help you take charge since you may be feeling vulnerable. Even if you don’t have a family member with you, don’t despair because you can be an empowered patient.

But I take exception to Ms. Landro’s choice of words. It’s important to question doctors and nurses, not challenge them.

I don’t think anyone ever really wants to be “challenged” unless they’re in a competition. Unless you’re looking for a confrontation or some type of dispute, challenging anyone isn’t a good thing. It’ll only make the other person defensive and block communication.

It’s no secret that medical mistakes happen in the hospital. Shockingly, it is reported that between 2004 and 2006, over 238,000 patients died from medical errors that might have been prevented, according to HealthGrades’ fifth annual Patient Safety in American Hospitals Study. You can help prevent medical errors by being assertive patient and working with your doctors and nurses.

As a nurse, I would not feel intimidated if I was questioned by a patient whether I’ve washed my hands. In fact, I would be impressed with patient who knew enough to speak up and to even pose the question.

As a patient, having the confidence to simply question in a non-threatening, polite and polished manner will make all the difference.

Think about how you speak to people and how people speak to you. What type of conversation gets a positive response?

Take a look at these two questions. They are very similar but with a different tone and style. Think about how you would react or respond to each question asked. Which one would you choose?

Patient says to the nurse or doctor:

I just saw you come from that other patient’s room, who knows what germs were in that room. How do I know that you just washed your hands? You could’ve picked up some bug in there and now you could be passing it to me. I don’t want to get some other infection. Did you wash your hands? Are you sure?


I see a lot of signs around the hospital that encourage patients to ask the staff if they’ve washed their hands, why is that? I’m wondering if you’ve washed your hands.

What has been your experience? Do you feel intimidated to ask questions? Do your questions get answered? Let us know what it was like for you as a patient in a hospital.

For more about hospital safety, read my blog on, Don’t go to the Hospital Without these Ten Safety Tips.

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  1. 1

    I agree you should ask questions but it is sometimes difficult to do as a patient in a hospital especially when you are not feeling well. As a patient you also want to have a certain amount of trust that doctors and nurses are doing the correct thing. You always stress having a patient advocate and I agree that they are the ones who are often in a better position to ask questions especially for the elderly.

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