Encouraging questions from your consumers

Communication and Health Literacy

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Main point

It’s not unusual for healthcare providers to underestimate how vulnerable people might feel and how hard it they find it to ask questions.

Environments and workers need to encourage and welcome questions.

Asking questions can give consumers important knowledge. This can give them confidence to be meaningfully involved in managing their health and wellbeing, which is important for consumer safety, equity and the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of health-care.

However, many consumers are reluctant to ask questions, and even more reluctant to ask for something to be clarified if they don’t understand the answers. Consumers may be worried about:

  • taking up too much time or bothering someone they perceive as an authority figure
  • looking foolish or ignorant, or not knowing the right words or phrases to express their questions correctly.

How to encourage questions1

  • Watch your body language. Present yourself as having time and wanting to hear questions. Face towards the person and listen. If the person is standing, stand. If the person is sitting, sit.
  • Try not to interrupt.
  • Watch how you speak. If you speak fast or abruptly, you are likely to send a message that you are too busy for questions.
  • Provide 'customer service' training to all staff.
  • Watch the words you use. If you use jargon or accusatory phrases (for example, ‘You should have . . .’) you will discourage questions.
  • Avoid asking ‘Do you have any questions?’ This often leads to a quick ‘no’ even if the person does have questions.
    • Ask open ended questions.  For example, ask ‘What questions do you have for me?’ or ‘That was a lot of information. What do I need to go over?
  • Encourage all staff to ask questions. For example:
    • At reception: "Is there anything you need to know before you see the doctor?"
    • During the appointment: "What questions do you still have?"
    • At checkout: "Were all your questions answered?"
  • Consider providing staff with badges with the words 'Ask Me' on them.

Tools to encourage questions

Its ok to ask

‘Its ok to ask’ supports people to ask questions and get the most from their visits.  It also reminds services to welcome questions.

The free ‘its ok to ask’ resources (posters, pamphlets, games, video clips, workshop materials and activities) have been co-developed with consumers as conversation starters, prompts, examples of ways to build capacity and skills.  You can mix and match resources to suit your setting or purpose.

HealthDirect question builder

The Health Direct question builder supports consumers build questions they want to ask a doctor or specialist.

Choosing Wisely

The Choosing Wisely website has resources for health care providers and consumers.


1. D DeWalt et al., Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit, Publication No. 10-0046-EF, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD, 2014, viewed 21 July 2014, www.ahrq.gov/professionals/quality-patient-safety/quality-resources/tools/literacy-toolkit/index.html

January 2019