Getting older often means more visits to the doctor. Making the most of every appointment requires that you plan a little, ask certain questions, and bring along the right tools. Follow these strategies to ensure your health care needs are met at each and every visit.
As we get older, our bodies become more susceptible to illness. That’s why it’s important to get annual preventative screenings, as well as regularly visit our doctors to monitor any diseases, conditions, or unusual symptoms that we may have.
An average visit to the doctor lasts only about 15 minutes. In order to get the most out of that visit and ensure you are getting the best health care possible, you must make efficient use of the brief encounter. We are here today to give you some strategies to guarantee that your visits to the doctor are quality driven and result in your optimum health.
Approach every medical appointment within the context of three phases. First, there’s the preplanning phase of the appointment during which you gather your medical history, track symptoms, organize a detailed list of your medications, and decide what to discuss with the doctor. Next, there’s the actual appointment. This is where you need to answer questions clearly, present your own questions, take notes, maybe even bring a friend with you to serve as an extra set of eyes and ears. Finally, there’s the follow-up phase. If your doctor recommends an additional appointment or a change in medication, are you doing your part to make it happen?
Phase 1: Before Your Doctor Visit
Okay, for starters, let’s just assume you’ve already made your appointment. As part of your preplanning, decide what you most want to get from this appointment. Are you having unusual symptoms? Do you need a second opinion on a procedure you’ve been told you need? Are you having exacerbations from a chronic condition? Is this a basic annual wellness exam and you want to make sure you are on the right path to good health? Patients often feel rushed or unprepared for doctor’s appointments, so a little planning will make the visit more productive and allow you to think through questions and concerns to get the answers you need to improve or maintain your health.
Gather health history
Regardless of why you made the appointment, your doctor should have your current medical history already on file before the appointment starts. No need to waste important patient-physician time with the doctor firing off standardized questions and filling out a health history form on you. Complete it beforehand and as accurately as possible, including family history. That’s because your father’s dementia means something entirely different if he gets it at 45 as opposed to 85, and your doctor will be on the alert to assess you for symptoms.
If you are in the office because of an illness, be sure to provide a written account describing your problems and symptoms as clearly as possible. If you are in pain, provide a written account of when the pain started, where it is, how much it hurts on a scale of 1 to 10, and what makes it better or worse.
Your doctor will also appreciate a detailed accounting of the results of any home testing you’ve done like tracking weight, temperature, blood sugar, and blood pressure. For instance, if you have diabetes, record your daily blood-sugar measurement and bring along your log. If you have high blood pressure, get a series of readings at home during the week prior to your visit so your doctor can gauge whether your numbers have increased due to being in a medical environment, which is a phenomenon known as “white coat hypertension.”
Bring medications/test results
Make a list of prescription drugs as well as any over-the-counter medicines or herbal medications you may have been taking. Here’s a tip: If it’s too much trouble to write down all the names and dosages, just bag all of your medicine bottles and bring them with you.
Next, be sure to bring copies of your latest X-ray or MRI reports or any other test results, including reports from specialists you’ve seen. Include the specialists’ contact information like phone numbers and email addresses, as well as the names and phone numbers of your other doctors and the pharmacy you use. Also, bring your insurance cards.
Write down questions
Now make a list of questions you’d like to ask, ranked by priority. That way even if you only make it through a few, your most pressing concerns will be addressed. (Depending how involved your questions are, it’s usually best to focus on about three rather than, say, six.) Patients who write down questions in advance are more likely to stay focused and get their questions answered.
Think about what you want to get out of the visit. This is the time to understand that your 15 minutes won’t cover everything. You may have a variety of issues you want to talk about, but realistically you are going to have time to deal with, at most, your top three. Decide what these are before going in. You can always make a second appointment if you feel you need it. What’s important is that you set your own priorities for the day you walk into the office.
A day or two before your scheduled visit, call your doctor’s to check whether you should skip breakfast or lunch. Some blood tests require that you fast.
Phase 2: During the Visit
According to the National Patient Safety Foundation, you’ll be better prepared to take care of your health by asking these three questions during your doctor’s visit:
- What is my main problem?
- What do I need to do?
- Why is it important for me to do this?
If you need more clarification, tell your doctor you do not understand. If medical terms are confusing you, ask them to explain further, give you an example or use a visual. If you’ve been diagnosed, find out if the condition is temporary or chronic. Experts suggest asking how certain the doctor is about the diagnosis and what else it could be. If treatment is necessary, the doctor should explain what it will do for your problem, how long it will take to work, side effects to watch for, and possible interactions with medications you’re taking. Bring pen and paper with you and write down everything your doctor tells you. Repeat back to them the information they are giving you to ensure you understand exactly what is being said.
By asking your doctor questions about medications, diagnosis and treatment, you will be more successful in managing your health.
Don’t be bashful
Honesty is critical to a successful visit. Holding back embarrassing information or bending the truth could be dangerous to your health. If you aren’t satisfied with the doctor’s recommendations, like waiting things out to see how a condition progresses or taking a certain medication, let them know. If you’re not taking your medications, tell your doctor, and if there’s a reason why, tell them. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, let them know. You wouldn’t be alone. After all, about 6.5 million Americans over 65 suffer from depression, according to the AARP. If you said you quit smoking but you continue to sneak a cigarette here and there, let the doctor know. Also, if you are experiencing problems with memory and thinking, or bladder and bowel function, your health care team has a right to know. It’s in your best interest to be open.
Bring a friend or family member
Bringing a friend or family member to an appointment can be very beneficial. That person can help keep your story complete, interpret information, ask questions, and listen on your behalf, especially if you’re too sick to focus or upset after receiving bad news.
When recounting your symptoms, be as specific as you can. Pull out all of the notes you’ve been taking, the detailed description of your pain and other symptoms. Is the pain sharp? Does it have a burning quality, or is it dull? Try to remember and report colors, smells, intensity. Every bit of information is important in order to get to the bottom of your condition.
Phase 3: After the Visit
You should expect to leave your appointment with an idea of what the doctor thinks is going on and what treatments may be available. Your doctor may order tests and follow-up visits and prescribe medications. They may strongly suggest you quit smoking and start an exercise program and follow a specific diet. Be sure to follow all of your doctor’s recommendations if possible and provide updates to your doctor’s office. If at any point you have questions, you should call the office.
Remember, the visit isn’t over until you know exactly what you’re supposed to do and when you need to return. A doctor’s appointment isn’t a one-time event; it’s part of an ongoing relationship. If you realize you overlooked an important question, or if you have any trouble following the doctor’s advice, there’s nothing wrong with calling the office. You don’t need to schedule another appointment to get an answer; if the doctor isn’t available, ask to speak with a nurse. Let the office know if you feel worse or notice any medication-related side effects. And don’t skip your return visit, even if you’re feeling better.
Finally, use what you’ve learned to take better control of your health and start preparing for the next appointment.
You and your doctor have a responsibility together to keep you as healthy as possible. You need to do your share to make this happen by preparing for appointments, writing things down, and being as clear as you can in explaining your symptoms and issues.