How to Ask the Right Questions: Practical Steps for Healthcare Professionals

How to Ask the Right Questions: Practical Steps for Healthcare Professionals

By Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS

As a healthcare professional, it can be difficult to know how to ask the right questions when you suspect that your patient may have an eating disorder. As with most health-related concerns, it is important to remember that patients are often sensitive or resistant toward any sort of illness they may be facing. Compassion and gentleness are necessary if you hope to receive honest feedback and cooperation from your client.

Healthcare providers must be the first to create a safe space. While we don’t want to assume that someone does, indeed, have an eating disorder, we do want to be sure that if that is the case, we are referring them to the right kind of specialized care.

Taking proactive steps in recognizing the signs and symptoms, and preparing the right questions, will assure that you are providing the best possible care for your client.

Educate yourself

There are a number of resources available that outline the different warning signs of an eating disorder. You do not have to specialize in eating disorders to equip yourself with tools to identify symptoms in your patients.

Most of us do not include visits to an eating disorder specialist in our regular healthcare routine. Patients often do not see a specialist until the disorder is well under way. Therefore, it is important for primary healthcare providers to serve as lookouts for warning signs and refer patients to an equipped treatment center.

Ask the right questions

If you notice that your patient shows signs of an eating disorder, such as dramatic weight loss, preoccupation with weight, food, calories, etc., refusal to eat certain foods or food groups, anxiety about weight-gain, denial of hunger, development of food rituals or excessive exercise, it may be time to ask more targeted questions.

But how do you know which questions to ask if you do not specialize in eating disorders?

Dr. Teri McCann, Founder and Clinical Director at Fairhaven Treatment Center, has stated that the S.C.O.F.F. questionnaire/screening tool (though not a diagnostic tool) is helpful in identifying those at risk for anorexia or bulimia – and can identify the need to contact a treatment professional for a more detailed assessment.

Asking the following questions can help give you a better idea as to whether a client is developing an eating disorder.

S – Do you make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
C – Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?
O – Have you recently lost Over 14 pounds in a three-month period?
F – Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin?
F – Would you say Food dominates your life?
Proceed with care

Remember that an eating disorder is more than an obsession with food. It is a complex illness that affects both physical and mental health in a dramatic way. Healthcare professionals play a unique role in the life and wellbeing of their clients, and it’s imperative to approach those with eating disorders with the utmost care and compassion. It is more than the choice to eat healthier or simply gain weight. An eating disorder is a mental trauma that must be navigated carefully and patiently.

Once you have identified the warning signs and asked the proper questions, you can then refer your patient to an expert to receive more specialized care.

If you are a healthcare provider and have recognized warning signs of an eating disorder in your client, please contact Fairhaven Treatment Center.

Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS is the Founder and Executive Clinical Director of Fairhaven Treatment Center near Memphis, TN. Dr. McCann has over 30 years of experience in working with women and adolescents with symptoms of eating disorders of all kinds. Dr. McCann specializes in the treatment of eating disorders that are related to trauma and attachment disorder.

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