Optimizing Your Doctor’s Appointment

Health, Home & Family
on January 28, 2010

A typical doctor’s appointment lasts just 10 to 20 minutes. To get the most out of this time, you should be well prepared. Here are some tips to optimize your next visit.

Before your visit

  • When scheduling an appointment, explain the reason that you need to see your physician. “I’m better prepared and so is the staff when we know the purpose is a routine physical, follow-up for a chronic condition like diabetes, or a new problem,” says Dr. Elisabeth Monk, a family physician in Bangor, Maine (pop. 31,473).
  • Compile your health history, especially when seeing a new doctor. Include as much detail as you can about yourself, your parents and siblings. Mention life changes, such as a death in the family or a job loss.
    “I recommend patients keep a health diary, especially if they have an ongoing complaint like frequent headaches,” Monk says. “When we look at the diary together, a pattern may emerge-for instance, if a headache begins whenever the patient hasn’t had much sleep.”
  • Make a list of health concerns that have arisen since your last visit. If it is pain, when did it start? Does it begin at a particular time?
  • List all your questions, starting with the most important ones.
  • Take along a list of your medicines, including vitamins, aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs, as well as the exact dosages. Or, take all your medications to your appointment. Tell the doctor if you’ve noticed side effects.
  • Gather and take previous medical reports, including EKGs, lab tests and X-rays, to be compared with future tests. If you don’t have reports, take the names and phone numbers of the doctors who ordered them, so the information can be obtained.
  • If you have health insurance, take all your insurance cards. Take the current provider directory or the insurer’s Internet address as well, so if your physician refers you to a specialist, you can check to see if the specialist participates in your plan.
  • Confirm your appointment a day ahead. Ask if there are special instructions you need to follow, such as not eating or not taking any of your regular medications prior to your visit.

The appointment

  • Arrive early to fill out paperwork, if needed.
  • Consider taking someone with you to your appointment, advises U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. “A friend or family member can listen more objectively,” says Benjamin, founder of a rural health care clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala. (pop. 2,313). If you prefer that your companion step outside during a physical examination, say so ahead of time.
  • Take notes during your visit, especially if you don’t bring a companion along.
  • Be honest and frank, even if the subject is personal or you find it embarrassing. Doctors are trained to be nonjudgmental and discrete.

Wrapping it up

  • Don’t expect to have all your questions answered during the appointment. Additional tests may be needed or you may need to see a specialist.
  • If you get a diagnosis, be sure you understand it. If necessary, insist that the doctor re-explain. Ask for brochures or other educational materials about your condition.
  • Ask questions. What can be done for a particular problem? What is the downside if you don’t take action? If your condition is serious, you may want a second opinion.
  • If new medication is prescribed, understand what it is for and exactly how and when to take it. Ask if a generic version is available. A generic usually will cost less and be just as effective as a brand-name drug.
  • Ask if you need a follow-up appointment or if there are other instructions. “I remind my women patients to examine their breasts each month when they get their electricity bill,” Benjamin says. “I also suggest they schedule a Pap smear and mammogram near their birthday as their present to themselves. Wives, mothers and significant others should urge men to have routine checkups, including a blood test and prostate exam.”