How we did it

Our background research showed there was a great deal of material aimed at advising patients on questions to ask their health care professional. But we found most of it to be specific to particular conditions, treatment or settings.

The Department of Health (DoH) in England had already completed a consultation exercise to determine views on a series of draft questions and top tips that could be used by patients to help them get the most out of their appointments. This research suggested that the questions and tips could give patients confidence and encourage them to ask questions, leading to improved communication between patients and health professionals.

As well as our background research, we held a ‘brainstorming’ meeting with representatives from the voluntary sector, patient groups, the Scottish Government and the General Medical Council. At this meeting we decided to build on the developmental work already completed by the DoH in England by testing their list of questions and tips within Scotland.

Initial consultation

We commissioned an experienced researcher to conduct six focus groups. We wanted to get as wide a range of views as possible so we held groups that included the following:

  • patients with cancer (an acute condition, for which a lot of patient information is available),
  • patients with a long-term condition,
  • patients with a less common long-term condition where there is likely to be less information freely available,
  • patients with a mental health disorder,
  • carers and representatives from carer organisations, and
  • members of the public with some recent experience of using the NHS.

These groups were asked to consider:

  • the general principle of questions for patients,
  • the list of questions and tips piloted by the DoH in England,
  • methods of dissemination, and 
  • any challenges they could foresee in the implementation of the questions and tips.

In addition to this consultation we organised two meetings with health professional representatives to gather views on the practicality of promoting these questions, and to consider the implications for day to day medical practice.  The following professional organisations participated in the research:

  • Royal College of Nursing,
  • General Medical Council,
  • Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh,
  • NHS Education for Scotland, and
  • Scottish Government’s Allied Health Professional team.

We also received written feedback from the British Medical Association.

The consultation findings

“When you’re in an appointment with whoever, your mind goes blank and the doctor takes over with the questions.” 

The findings reinforced the view that patients and carers find it difficult to question health professionals. The feedback suggested that many participants had left medical appointments without all the information they would have liked. Some participants even suggested that many patients don’t feel they have ‘permission’ to ask health professionals questions.

“If you go in with a list of questions then you’re in with a shout.”

In light of this, the majority of participants felt that the production of a generic list of questions for patients would be a positive step towards more effective communication between patients and health professionals. Most people also felt that the questions would help to encourage patients to become more involved in their health care. And many of those involved in the research felt that the questions would help to reassure patients that they could ask questions about their health.

The feedback we received from the consultation exercises allowed us to make improvements to the content and layout of the questions and tips. We then completed a report for the Scottish Government, which summarised our overall findings, our suggested list of questions and tips, and our recommendations for taking this work forward.

For more information, you can download a copy of the consultation report.

Pilot study

The findings from the consultation with patients and health professionals were very encouraging but, to assess how effective the questions and tips could be in practice, we arranged for them to be evaluated in a pilot study.

We developed a leaflet called 'It's okay to ask!' for use in the pilot and commissioned George Street Research to help us run and evaluate the research. The research took place throughout October in three locations (two GP surgeries and one outpatient clinic) in NHS Lothian, with 200 members of the public taking part. NHS frontline staff were also interviewed to find out their views.

The findings from the pilot study showed that the majority of people felt reassured that it is okay to ask questions during health care consultation as a result of reading the leaflet, and many said that they would use the leaflet again.

For more information, you can download a copy of the pilot study report.

Page last edited: 16 May 2013