4 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Next Doctor’s Appointment

By Steve Calechman
February 04, 2021

A doctor’s visit can be nerve-racking, whether you’re managing a chronic illness or in peak health. There’s the stress of getting to the office, worry over possibly uncovering a problem, and frustration from feeling like you barely get any time with your doctor. And since this is often the only chance we have to interact face-to-face with our practitioner, it can feel like a lot is riding on getting it right—from making sure we get a thorough examination to remembering to bring up all our questions and concerns. As it is with many important meetings, preparation is key. So, what does that look like, exactly? Taking these four steps before your next medical appointment can turn down the tension and save time.

Know Your History

How many times have you sat in a waiting room struggling to remember if your mother had macular degeneration or glaucoma, or who in your family had the heart condition? Know that every doctor you see, from your GP to a specialist, is going to ask about certain things. That questionnaire cannot be sidestepped, especially by new patients. Prep beforehand by writing down your family history, especially of cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, high cholesterol, obesity, aneurysms, and mental health. For existing patients, make a note of any family conditions that have changed since your last visit, so you can update the information. Doing so saves time and also allows your doctor to offer the most informed advice, says Neha Vyas, M.D., family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic.

It’s also always good to know dates of surgeries and procedures, such as the last time you had a colonoscopy. If you have a recent diagnosis or a chronic condition, you want to be prepared to answer questions such as: When did it start? Is there anything, like a food or activity, that makes it worse? What is it preventing you from doing? For those with a chronic condition like diabetes or hypertension, bring with you a record of your last few at-home readings, such as your glucose levels or blood pressure. This can help your health care provider spot any trends or changes in your condition.

You’ll also be asked about social behavior—drinking, sexual activity, drug use, and smoking. The doctor isn’t looking to judge. Again, he or she just wants to be able to give appropriate advice. Still, some may find it difficult to share, especially if the relationship with the doctor is new. Write this down, as well, and hand it to the doctor. “That way, you’re getting the information out, but it feels less on the spot,” says Pooja DeWilde, D.O., family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine.

Show Up Early

Being on time is great. Getting to your appointment 15 minutes early is even better. An annual physical is usually scheduled to last a set amount of time, typically about 20 minutes. Appointments with specialists can vary in length, but realize that your time isn’t unlimited. Showing up ahead of schedule gives you ample time to fill out any paperwork and get into the room faster; so, instead of the doctor waiting for you, you’re ready when the doctor walks in, Vyas says. Arriving a few minutes late doesn’t mean you’ll get shortchanged on your time. “But it’s rushed,” says DeWilde, adding that when you’re hurried, your blood pressure and/or heart rate could be elevated, skewing the results in your chart. Plus, you’ll probably talk faster, leading to less listening and the likelihood that you’ll forget something.

Have an Agenda

Since time is at a premium, don’t think of your physical as an improvisation. “Go into your appointment like you would any kind of meeting,” Vyas says. That means coming in with a game plan—so, jot down a list of concerns on paper. An annual physical has set components including taking a history, updating information, and talking about preventive care. It’s not an all-encompassing exam or the time to review every problem. You and your doctor can look at the list together and make sure the top two to three concerns get attention. With issues that can’t be addressed, the doctor might recommend a follow-up appointment. When going over your list, tell your health care provider not just what, but why something is bothering you. Is it due to a sensation you experienced, such as pain, or is it a sensation heightened by a worry—for example, your neighbor got a headache and then a tumor was found? Sometimes, what’s needed is an alleviation of the apprehension.

One thing that can ratchet up anxiety ahead of an appointment is over-Googling a suspected condition. It’s fine to research a concern, Vyas says, but only share with the doctor the symptoms you actually feel, “rather than diseases you’ve heard all about,” in order to keep the conversation open and the time focused.

Don’t Come Alone

Appointments can involve a lot of information. If you have memory issues, are dealing with a chronic illness or a new diagnosis that has you feeling overwhelmed, or even if you just want some backup support, it’s helpful to bring a friend or relative who can be a note taker and provide an extra set of ears. That person can fill in any holes, jog your memory, provide observations, and just make sure nothing is missed. “It’s good to have a listener,” Vyas says. Before you leave, if you’re unclear about anything that was discussed, explain it back to the doctor and ask, “Do I understand this correctly?”

And if you’re on medications, bring the bottles or snap a clear photo of each label with your camera phone, to show your health care provider. It’s difficult to identify pills solely based on color and shape. Knowing which you’re taking makes it easier for your doctor to determine if there are any overlaps, gaps, or negative interactions in your prescriptions.

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