Say what’s important to you and get what you need from your next visit with a health care provider.
If you count every physician visit in America, the average person sees the doctor about four times per year. But factor out the life stages when those visits are very common — such as the busy first and last years of life — and that number drops. Many people only squeeze in one or two visits per year, and over the past decades, a growing number haven’t seen their primary care provider even once.
This means that when you do schedule a doctor’s appointment, your face-to-face time is even more precious. As the frequency of visits drops, the topics, medications and conditions you need to cover will grow. Factor in an average visit time of about 15 minutes, and the clock is ticking — a pressure that can make anyone feel a little scattered.
Luckily, a little bit of prep work can do wonders. The do’s and don’ts below can help you ready your mind, get the attention you need and walk out of the doctor’s office feeling good about your visit.
In this article:
Do: Make a list of questions for your doctor
Write down exactly what you want to discuss with your doctor. Begin with the most pressing questions and let your doctor know what they are at the start of the visit. “This puts it on your doctor’s radar that it’s important to you,” says Caitlin Donovan, senior director of public relations at the National Patient Advocate Foundation, a national nonprofit. You can even hand a copy of the list to your doctor as soon as they come in and greet you. If you run out of time, you may need to schedule another appointment, says Donovan. Ask if you can record the session or take notes on your phone. Don’t rely on the after-visit summary or notes in your online patient portal. They’re sometimes written in clinical jargon that’s tough to decipher.
Do: Be your own health advocate
It can be intimidating to speak up, says Donovan, when you’re in a vulnerable position (hello, shivering in a paper gown!). Some patients fear being considered a bother to a busy doctor, says Donovan. Additionally, research shows that in 67 percent of encounters, doctors interrupt patients after about 11 seconds. However, it’s important to speak up so you can get the care you need. Tell your doctor if you’re feeling rushed, uncomfortable or worried. You could say something like, “I know you’re busy with patients, but I’m concerned about my headaches. It would really help if we could discuss that a little more.”
Do: Bring a friend or family member with you
If you tend to get shy, nervous or overwhelmed, ask someone you trust to come with you. Before the visit, spell out exactly what you want that person to do. For example, you may prefer the person to ask questions for you and speak up on your behalf, or you may want them to just listen and jot down notes. But first call the doctor’s office to make sure you’re even able to bring someone along. “Because of COVID-19 policies, some offices are limiting the number of people allowed inside,” says Donovan.
Do: Give your doctor an update
If you’ve seen a specialist or have gone to the emergency room since your last visit, tell your doctor. Also mention any changes in your sleep, appetite, weight or energy level — and consider bringing any new supplements or medications with you, so that you can present a complete picture of what’s going on with your health.
Do: Spend time researching
Learning the basics about your condition can help you make the most of your visit. That way, your doctor won’t need to spend time explaining, for instance, what certain blood tests are for. Stick with reputable websites, such as those from the National Institutes of Health.
Do: Track your symptoms
Assuming you’re seeing your doctor for a specific issue, record your symptoms a week or two before your visit. For example, write down when you have a headache or back pain, how long it lasts, the intensity and how it affects your daily life (such as whether pain in your hip is bad enough that you can’t climb stairs). If you’re worried about your blood pressure, blood glucose level, or oxygen level and pulse rate, use at-home products to track your readings (such as the CVS Health Series 800 upper arm blood pressure monitor and the CVS Health At Home A1C Test Kit.) This gives your doctor more context, says Donovan.
Do: Stay on top of your medications
Make a list of all the current prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines and supplements you take and their dosages. “If you have multiple doctors writing prescriptions, things can get lost in translation,” says Teri Dreher, a Chicago based registered nurse and owner of NShore Patient Advocates. It’s a good idea to have an up-to-date ledger to share with your doctor.
Do: Be honest with yourself and your doctor
When your doctor asks if you’re taking your medicine or exercising regularly, it might be tempting to fudge a little. And some people downplay their symptoms, says Dreher. In fact, some 81 percent of people confess to having “avoided telling a clinician … medically relevant information,” according to a study in JAMA Network Open. But if you don’t give your doctor the whole truth, you’re not giving them all the insight needed to treat you properly.
Do: Understand next steps
Toward the end of your visit, confirm that you and your doctor are on the same page. Repeat your diagnosis and treatment, says Donovan. You can say, “I heard you say…. Is that correct?” You should also confirm that you understand the next steps, such as any follow-up appointments or referrals. Request a printed list of any medications or tests that you need, and ask how you’ll find out about the results. “Also ask the best way to follow up with your doctor if you have any questions later on,” Donovan adds. Some prefer calls or emails, while others use an online patient portal.
Don't: Ask about your insurance coverage
Doctors usually don’t know the details about insurance policies, says Donovan. Save those questions for the billing professionals in the office. But do speak up if you have any concerns about the costs of your care, she adds. They may be able to help you with financial assistance.
Don't: Diagnose yourself
You may have already searched your symptoms online. While you should bring up any medical concerns that arose because of your research, avoid announcing a self-diagnosis. Approach it as if you’re working together as a team, suggests Donovan.“ You may say, ‘I read about someone with the same symptoms as me who wound up having such and such condition. Can you tell me why you think I have something else?’”
Don't: Bring up other people’s health issues
While you have got your doctor’s attention, it might seem like a good time to ask about another family member — for instance, a rash your spouse has — but don’t. Health care providers can’t comment on someone they’re not treating, says Donovan. Even if they are seeing the same doctor, your spouse needs their own appointment.
Don't: Take your frustrations out on the staff
If you’re left to wait a half hour or more every time you see your doctor and miss work meetings or are late to pick up your kids at school, that’s certainly disruptive. But don’t use that as an excuse to berate the receptionists or technicians. Remember that they’re people, too, says Dreher. “They have tough jobs, and they’re often overworked. A little kindness can go a long way.” Ask the reason for the long wait. You can give feedback by email or in the online patient portal.
This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.