I want to help you learn how to get the most from your doctor's appointment. I'm a doctor. Right now, I'm also a cancer patient. I have a lot of experience from both sides of this relationship and I can help you. Ask yourself two questions:
- Have you been frustrated during a doctor's appointment because it seems like your doctor is throwing a bunch of fast-paced information at you in a language you only partly understand?
- Does it seem like your doctor doesn't always use your appointment time to focus on the concerns that are the most important to you?
There are steps to help you take control of your appointment to ensure that your top concerns are addressed and that you will come away with valuable information from your doctor.
Get tips from a doctor turned patients about how to get the most from your own doctor's appointment
I’m a doctor and I've just spent the past six months as a patient with a complex and very serious health problem that involved numerous doctors' visits. The table has been turned on me because I'm not a specialist in the medical fields related to my health problem. I've experienced the overwhelm that many patients experience during a doctor's appointment.
This post highlights what I've learned to help me take control of my doctors' visits so that I'm certain to get the information I need for my treatment. Remember, as a patient, you want to hear new and important information from your doctor regarding your health and treatment; you want to learn more than you knew before your visit.
You also want, and should expect, to hear new vocabulary and ideas that are unfamiliar. Add to that the fact that you and your doctor will be talking about your health and sometimes your brain will turn in a different direction as you personalize something your doctor says. When that happens, you will miss the next sentence or two of information that your doctor is covering before you snap back to the discussion. The entire experience can be overwhelming.
The bottom line is that it's best to come prepared to your doctor's visit.
There are four simple steps to being prepared to get the most out of your doctor's visit:
- Summarize your relevant health history so you can remember to tell your doctor the important points.
- Have your questions written down.
- Prioritize the important topics you want to cover because you and your doctor might find that you can't always do justice to every relevant health issue that's important to you in just one visit.
- Be prepared to capture what your doctor says during your visit so that you can study it later.
Four steps to get the most from your doctor's visit
Step 1. Organize your health history so that your doctor has the important facts.
If you have seen other doctors about this health problem or other medical issue, and tried other treatments that may or may not have worked, then have your history succinctly organized to give the key points so that you and your doctor can build from there. This will help both you and your doctor start where other doctors left off so that you don't waste time duplicating what has already been tried or thought of.
Step 2. Write down in advance your questions and the topics you want to cover.
I start all of my personal doctors' visits by reading my questions to my doctors so that they have an overview of what I want to accomplish during the visit. I know that my doctors also have their own goals and priorities regarding how we spend the visit time. The most important issues get priority and some of the lesser issues may be put on a list for the next visit if we run out of time.
Step 3. Prioritize the most important topics or issues you want to cover during your doctor's visit.
Remember that the more you ask your doctor to accomplish in a visit the less time he or she will have to tackle your problems in an in-depth fashion. It means that both you and your doctor need to be realistic about how much can be accomplished during the visit.
If you have a lot of questions, have complex or numerous health problems, require a comprehensive physical exam, need to make decisions about tests or treatments including learning about their pros and cons, and are also wanting or needing educational health information then that’s a lot to try to fit into one visit.
Plan to prioritize and make several trips to your doctor so that you can both handle all this work well. Return visits will also allow you and your doctor to follow up on any treatments started or tests ordered. You will undoubtedly have more questions and you'll have time for those too. You will get more detailed information on each of your concerns if give them the time they deserve.
Remember, during a doctor's visit, your doctor has additional behind-the-scene tasks to do for you.
They need time to do these tasks and you can’t know how hard or easy they are. These are tasks, such as running a differential diagnosis list for each of your problems or your exam findings and weighing appropriate treatment options in their head. Your doctor will probably be doing this at the same time they are doing your exam, collecting important information from you, and trying to get a good sense for who you are as a person so that their recommendations match your needs.
Step 4. Come prepared to capture the information your doctor is sharing so that you can review it later.
Trust me, when you review the information your doctor gives you during your visit you will hear and learn things you missed the first time. Capturing the information will also give you a chance to be sure you really understand some of the terminology.
During my complicated medical care, I used three main ways to capture information during my doctor's visits:
- I record the visit on my smart phone. (Of course, you need to ask your doctor is he/she is comfortable with being recorded. All of my breast cancer doctors said yes.) I can tell you that what I learned when I reviewed the visit recordings was a revelation. I missed so much in the exam room because frankly, the information was overwhelming.
- I also bring a pad of paper and pen to write notes.
- For really important doctor visits I also bring another person who can help me capture information and keep me on track with my questions and concerns. I call this person the "active listener." They bring a pad of paper and pen to take notes and they help make certain that I get all my questions answered.
Getting the most out of your doctor's appointment is a very active process. You want your doctor to give you new information and ideas regarding your health and you want those ideas to fit with your needs. You can best accomplish this by being organized.
- Have your questions written down and outline the information you need to share with your doctor, record the visit or take notes so you can review them and study the information later.
- Bring someone to help you do all of this if you think you would benefit from help.
- Also, be realistic about how much you and your doctor can truly accomplish during your visit and be open to coming back for a follow up visit so that you can ask additional questions, tackle additional concerns, and check in to see if your treatment is working well.
One last bit of advice: if you feel like you're getting the "official party line" from your doctor and you really want to know what they would do if this were them, ask!
Yep, just ask. Say “what would you do if this was you/your husband/your child/your parent etc.” I use this with my own doctors and it works. I watch them switch from professional mode to personal self-reflective mode with that simple question. I tend to feel their answers to this question are the ones really meld both their scientific medical knowledge and their personal hunch or opinion. It gives me another piece of information to factor into my decisions.
Photo attribution: Thanks and gratitude to © Randy Faris/Corbis