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Take Charge of Your Next Doctor’s Visit

Eight steps to get the most out of your medical visit

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by Teresa Dumain

Well-Being
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With the changes occurring in the medical world, make 2016 the year you try a new and better approach to your own health. Start by taking control of your relationship with your health care providers. Doctor appointments feel fast—probably because they are: The average primary care visit only lasts about 15 minutes. If you aren’t prepared, you can leave with more questions than answers. To help your doctors do a better job of helping you, medical experts recommend following these eight steps: 

STEP 1: COMPILE YOUR MEDICAL HISTORY

For a first visit, you need it all: health issues past and present, any hospitalizations or surgeries, allergies, past medical reports and a list of medications you’ve taken or are taking, says Dr. Lori Posk, medical director for MyChart, the Cleveland Clinic’s personal patient portal. Also gather your family history—starting with parents and siblings—of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and other conditions. It’s important to note their ages when first diagnosed, adds Posk, who also serves as medical director of the Twinsburg Family Health and Surgical Center in Ohio. “With something like colon cancer, for example, a family member’s age of onset may impact when we start screening you for the disease.” And for every subsequent visit, tell your physician about any health changes, such as an emergency room visit or family health updates.

Before visiting your doctor, make room to pack your pills., Julia Nichols/Getty Images

STEP 2: PACK YOUR MEDS

Preferably the actual prescription bottles, advises Dr. Carlos Rios, an attending physician at Mount Sinai Health System’s Primary Care Associates in New York City, along with any other over-the-counter medications, vitamins, supplements and herbs in your regimen. Studies have shown that only about half of patients take their medication as prescribed. “Seeing the bottle, number of pills and remaining refills can better help doctors determine if you are taking them correctly, more so than just bringing in a list,” explains Rios. And if you’re skipping a prescribed med, be honest. Here’s why: If he thinks you are taking the prescription and the therapy isn’t working, he may add or change it when in fact you haven’t given the original treatment a chance. Instead, tell your doctor why you’re not taking it—the cost, side effects or a general aversion to medication—so the physician can come up with another strategy.

STEP 3: LIST QUESTIONS, RANKED BY PRIORITY

That way if you don’t get through every one, you at least hit your most pressing. If you’ve done some Internet research on your symptoms or condition, bring bulleted notes (not stacks of printouts), your sources (website, blog, etc., so the doctor can tell you if it’s credible), as well as any specific questions about your findings. And if you think you know what you have, tell your doctor, suggests Posk, so she can address it and maybe quell some fears.

STEP 4: BE SPECIFIC WITH SYMPTOMS

Have a headache? Telling your doctor how long it has lasted and how badly it hurts is important, but specific details are what may help lead to a diagnosis and treatment: Is the headache sharp, stabbing, throbbing? Do you feel it behind the eye or just on the left temple? Also, try to log any triggers (such as food or stress), treatments you’ve tried to alleviate the pain, and any methods 

Seeing the bottle, number of pills, and remaining refills can better help doctors determine if you are taking them correctly, more so than just bringing in a list.

Dr. Carlos Rios, An attending physician at Mount Sinai Health System’s Primary Care Associates in New York City.

When seeing a new doctor, bring a list of all past and present health issues., Courtney Keating/Getty Images

STEP 5: TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT

You eat foods that aren’t on your diet; you plan to exercise more than you actually do; you sometimes smoke even though you know better; or you have a rash in a weird spot. All of that information is helpful when your doctor assesses you, says Rios, who also serves as an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Your doctors know you’re not perfect, and by being truthful, it’s one less piece (or false piece) of information that may lead them in the wrong diagnostic direction.

STEP 6: BRING A SECOND SET OF EARS

Especially for anything complex or for a stressful visit that may deal with a chronic illness, it helps to bring along your spouse, a family member or a friend who can listen carefully, take notes and offer support. You can ask the doctor for time alone to discuss personal matters, if needed.

STEP 7: ASK FOR CLARIFICATION

“As much as we try, we often slip into the medical speak,” admits Rios. If you don’t understand something, ask the doctor to repeat it. Or if you feel like your physician is often interrupted or seems rushed, it’s OK to say so. “Be direct,” suggests Posk. “Say, ‘I want to make sure I get an answer to this question today before I leave this appointment.’”

STEP 8: CONFIRM NEXT STEPS

Review—and write down—the treatment plan, any changes to your regimen and when your next appointment should be. If there’s a new treatment, know what to expect as far as side effects and how to contact the doctor’s office if needed, particularly after hours, suggests Posk. Whether the diagnosis is cancer or a stubbed toe, Rios says, knowing the plan, the follow-up and the best way to communicate with your physician is paramount.

Say, ’I want to make sure I get an answer to this question today before I leave this appointment.’

Dr. Lori Posk, Medical director for MyChart