The Inquisition

We all have pointed questions we’d like to ask our health-care professionals, but we often don’t have the time—or the guts—to do so. Here, we did it for you.

January 2011

Q: Why are you never on time for my appointment?

“One of two reasons: One, the patient before you came late and insisted on being seen; and two, patients often don’t tell us what they’re really coming in for. They might say they’re coming in for a sinus infection, but then they’re feeling better, and they keep the appointment and talk about something else entirely. That messes up our scheduling. If you make an early appointment, that’s always helpful.” —Dr. Theresa Heble, family medicine, Littleton

Q: Why do I have to come in for something that is obviously minor? (My kid has a fever, that rash came back, my tooth hurts.) Why can’t we just talk about it over the phone?”

“In today’s health-care system, the doctor only gets paid if the patient comes in. It’s like calling your car mechanic to diagnose a problem over the phone—they wouldn’t get paid either. But the world is changing, and doctors are doing more over the phone and e-mail now. It’s a great development—it’s inefficient to always make people come in.” —Dr. Colleen Conry, family medicine, Denver

Q: I’m at your office to make sure I’m healthy, so why are you berating me about things I already know about—like flossing every day?

“Because it’s fun! No, seriously, it’s because most patients only floss right before they come for a checkup and then for two weeks after. You need to floss because the toothbrush only reaches three of the five tooth surfaces. If you don’t disturb the other two areas once a day, you’ll get tooth decay. Look, I hate flossing. It’s not that I don’t do it, but I was probably 30 before I did it every day. I recommend that people tape their floss to the mirror so they don’t forget. As the saying goes: Only floss the teeth you want to keep.” —Dr. Thomas Croghan, general dentistry, Denver

Q: I’m 57 and still have my wisdom teeth. My dentist keeps telling me I need to get them removed. Why would I if they’re not bothering me?

“Most adults do not have jawbones large enough to accommodate wisdom teeth; those who do are welcome to hang on to them if they can be maintained. Most of the time, however, they are too far back in the mouth to be cleaned properly, and they become decayed. Those whose wisdom teeth are still impacted or under the bone usually end up with problems relating to the teeth in front of them—like crowding or damage to the root of the healthy molar. For this reason, most dentists routinely recommend having wisdom teeth removed when kids are teenagers, when they are much easier to take out.” —Dr. Amy Becker, general dentistry, Littleton

Q: If a patient has something embarrassing to talk about, how should he bring it up?

“The best thing to do is bring it up straight away. Tell the doctor you have something embarrassing to discuss. Patients will typically find they have nothing to be embarrassed about at all. Most of these questions have to do with sexual issues and STD concerns. And I’ve found that it helps to be matter-of-fact about it.” —Dr. Anne McLean, internal medicine, Evergreen

Q: At what age should I start brushing my baby’s gums and teeth?

“As soon as the first tooth begins to erupt through the gum, you should be caring for those teeth. Use a washcloth or gauze with water only. Once there are six, eight, or 10 teeth, you can use a toothbrush with either water or fluoride-free toothpaste.” —Dr. Brad Smith, pediatric dentistry, Centennial

Q: How do I know if my symptoms mean I should go to the ER?

“Everyone is different. There are often socioeconomic factors that come into play with a visit to the ER, and often there are time constraints that a person takes into consideration. But the thing is, illness has a lot to do with perception. When I was in medical school I asked my attending physician why certain people were in the ER when they didn’t really need to be. He told me, “Because they perceive that it’s an emergency.” We may not always agree that you need to be in the ER, but if you think your symptoms warrant a trip here, then come on in.” —Dr. Brad Simon, emergency medicine, Denver

Q: Are pacifiers ever OK?

“Sucking is a natural habit and some babies have a strong need for that. But I encourage parents to limit pacifiers as babies get older. After a year, parents should cut down pacifier use to nap time and bedtime. Prolonged use can push lower front teeth backward and upper front teeth forward. Plus, the sucking motion can constrict the upper jaw, creating orthodontic problems.” —Dr. Brad Smith, pediatric dentistry, Centennial

Q: Is it OK for me to tell my doctor I’d like a second opinion?

“If a patient wants a second opinion, I think that’s a great thing. After all, no one is perfect. And it can be an opportunity: I can either learn from something I missed, or it can be an affirmation that I did my job well. The bottom line is that everything should be about patient care. I’ve never been offended by a patient asking to get a second opinion.” —Dr. Paul Forward, family medicine, Golden

Q: How often do I need to get a full physical and bloodwork?

“It depends on your age. Women should see their gynecologist once a year. Teenagers in sports will go once a year because it’s mandatory; teenagers not in sports are OK to go every other year. Young adults should go every two to three years as long as their blood and cholesterol are OK. Older adults should go every year. As for bloodwork, if you’re older than 50, you should have your blood tested once a year or every other year, as long as you’re healthy.” —Dr. Theresa Heble, family medicine, Littleton

Q: People often worry about calling their doctor with silly questions: When is it OK and not OK to call you?

“I’d say people are often too polite on this front. If something feels scary—fever, pain, shortness of breath—feel free to call your doctor.” —Dr. Anne McLean, internal medicine, Evergreen