Getting the Most From Your Doctor's Visits

June 26, 2009

 Blood pressure check up

When you visit healthcare providers, a little preparation on your part can make their job easier.

With statistics showing the average office visit lasts about 15 minutes, it's smart to be prepared so you'll get the most from your time.

We're using the term "doctor" here to keep it simple, but these research-based suggestions apply to physician's assistants, nurse practitioners, and other healthcare providers, too.

Before the visit

Going to the doctor can be stressful. You may feel hurried or anxious, and you may forget to mention important information. It might help to make three lists: your goals for the visit, your symptoms, and your medications. If possible, make the lists before you call to schedule your appointment, so the receptionist can note your concerns or allow extra time for your visit.

  1. Your goals for the visit Sometimes the goal is very clear — for instance, you want the doctor to look at a rash or test your cholesterol level. Or perhaps you're worried about something — like headaches or pain — and just want a checkup. Whatever the reason for your visit, be clear about your objectives.

  2. Your symptoms Even though this list may take a while to prepare, it will help your doctor figure out what's going on. Here are some examples of possible questions from the doctor and good ways to answer them clearly:

    • How do you describe the symptom? Example: I have a sharp, stabbing pain right above my eye.
    • When did you start to feel this? Example: About two weeks ago.
    • How long does it last? Example: About an hour.
    • What seems to bring it on? Example: I'm not sure. It just happens.
    • What has changed in your life that might have something to do with your symptom? Example: One of my best friends died and I just can't get rid of this sadness I feel.
    • What have you tried to do, and has it helped? Example: I've tried aspirin, but it didn't go away.
    • Write down what you think is wrong, as well. Most of us make guesses about what's going on in our bodies, and we often worry about the worst-case scenario. Talk about your self-diagnosis so the doctor can consider the possibility and then either rule it out or confirm your hunch.
  3. Your medications Make a list of all the medications you take. Your doctor may even ask you to bring them with you. Be sure to list all your prescription drugs. Write down any over-the-counter medicines, herbs, or supplements you take. Write down medicines you've stopped taking and the reason you or your doctor stopped them.

    For each drug, note:
    • The name of the drug
    • How often you take it
    • When you take the drug
    • The strength of the drug
    • What the drug is for
    • The last time you took it

During the visit

To keep things on track, bring your lists with you. At the beginning of the appointment — within the first minute if possible — tell the doctor, "I've written down my goals for the visit and some questions. When would you like me to go over these with you?"

Doctors have specific goals, too, and each works in a different way. Some want to know everything you're thinking right off the bat, while others prefer to examine you first.

My Health Notes

Download the following resources to help track your health notes.

To note questions for your doctor and information about your medications, click here.

To note important contact information, click here.

Types of doctor's visits

The course of the visit usually depends on why you're there:

  • Follow-up visits — The doctor knows why you're there, so he or she may ask questions and perform tests for that issue only. If you have unrelated questions or concerns, tell the doctor right away. For example, you could say: "I know I'm here because of my regular diabetes check-up, but I have some other problems I want to talk about, too. When would you like me to bring these up?" When you have a follow-up visit, it's especially important to bring your list of medications. The doctor may want to change your medication or dosage schedule.

  • Find it and fix it visits — These visits are about solving a problem. Your list of symptoms will come in handy as a memory aid. Say to the doctor: "I have a list of the things I've been noticing. Also, I have an idea of what might be going on. When would you like to talk about these?" Frequently, we can't get the answers we want in the first "find it and fix it appointment." The doctor may need to do some tests to figure out what's wrong.

Ask about alternative drugs

If the doctor prescribes a drug, it's worth it to bring up a touchy subject — cost. Doctors often don't know the price of medications they prescribe or how much you'll pay — but you do. So ask about alternatives. The doctor may be able to prescribe a different drug that works just as well and costs you less.

Write down instructions

Ask the doctor to write down your instructions clearly enough so you can read them. At the end of the visit, say to the doctor: "Can we take a minute to go back over what we've talked about today so I'm sure I understand?"

After the visit

The path to better health doesn't end when you leave the doctor's office. These steps can help you get the most from your visit for weeks — or years — to come.

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