How to Maximize a Doctor Visit

To get the most out of those 15 minutes, start preparing before you arrive.

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Every minute of a doctor appointment counts—there are only about 15 in a typical primary care visit. To get the attention and care you need and deserve while the clock is ticking, that brief encounter needs to be as efficient as possible. Here's how to make that happen.

Before the visit

Why did you make the appointment? Deciding ahead of time what you most want to get out of the visit will help you organize your thoughts beforehand and shape how you and the doctor spend your time together. Your goal could be helping a new doctor better understand your medical history, or getting an answer to a specific question ("Should I worry about the rash on my lower back?"), or getting a second opinion on a procedure you've been told you need. "I once had a patient tell me that something had started all the way back in 1926. And I said, 'This could take a long time. Are you sure you want to spend our visit telling a story?'" says Howard Beckman, a clinical professor with the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "And he wanted to. I told him I was happy to listen, but that he would have to come back a second time for the rest of the visit." Telling stories or spouting questions will eat up your visit; setting realistic goals and expectations beforehand will help you leave satisfied.

Whether you're seeing a doctor for the first time, for a regular checkup, or for a particular medical reason, she needs to know your medical history and keep it current. Preparing a printout or neatly written description of your medical history at the beginning of your relationship will help her enormously—and will free up precious minutes she would have otherwise spent quizzing you and taking down your answers. Individual sections are a further help: one for past and present illnesses, and the treatment you received, another for hospitalizations, a third for allergies, and a section for family history—including how old relatives were when they were diagnosed. That's because your mother's diabetes, for example, means something different if she developed it at age 65 rather than, say, 25; the younger she was when she developed the condition, the more likely you are to be diagnosed at some point, too.

If you're beyond the getting-to-know-you stage and are in the office because of illness, written notes describing your problems, symptoms, and needs as specifically and clearly as possible, will be another time-saver. Are you in pain? For how long, where is it, and how much does it hurt on a scale of 1 to 10? What makes it better or worse? The doctor will also find helpful the results of any home testing you've done, like temperature, blood sugar, or blood pressure levels. Note your daily living habits (eating, drinking, exercise, smoking, and sleeping), as well as any recent lifestyle changes. And rather than carting 10 pill bottles with you, bring a list of all medications (including over-the-counter), vitamins, and herbal products you're taking. "You need to include the doses and the frequency and only list the medicines you're actually taking, not the ones you're supposed to be taking," Beckman says. A good way to do this is with one of many free websites; MediGuard and, for example, let you keep a running record of all your drugs to print out for your doctor or before a hospital stay.

You'll want to make another list: 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, seven.) Patients who write down questions in advance are more likely to stay focused and get their questions answered. "You may feel intimidated or get somewhat flustered or distracted, so if you don't have them in front of you, you're probably going to forget what you want to ask," says Don Powell, president of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, which promotes positive health behavior through wellness programs and publications.

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