During (and after) the visit
If you've been diagnosed, find out if the condition is temporary or will be ongoing, if it's contagious, or if there's a genetic component that could affect your family. 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. If you need a test, she should tell you how it will help identify the problem, how accurate and reliable it is, how you should prepare, and how and when you'll get the results. It's up to you to weigh the benefits against the risks, and doing that wisely requires that you understand the possible complications. The doctor might have to be prompted to offer alternatives, one of which is choosing to do nothing.
While coming armed with questions is smart, bringing stacks of medical research and literature isn't. "I've had people bring 200 pages of information they've put together, and they want my opinion on it," says Beckman. "I'm not going to go home at night and read all this stuff." A better idea: a one-page summary that explains what you've learned and includes a question.
Bringing a trusted friend or family member to an appointment, on the other hand, makes good sense. That person can help keep your story complete, ask questions, and listen on your behalf, especially if you're too sick to focus or upset after receiving bad news. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea. "My mother was a very stubborn person and refused to allow her caregiver to sit in on appointments," Powell says. "But she could hardly hear anything, so I know that she wasn't getting much benefit from her doctor visits." Just no arguing with your companion in front of the doctor. You both need to be on the same page before the appointment so that neither of you is surprised by the other bringing up, or not disclosing, a certain issue.
By staying alert to certain signs, you'll be able to tell quickly whether you and the doctor are the right match. Does she make eye contact, or is she glued to her computer screen? Does she make you feel rushed? Does she show enough warmth and sensitivity, if these are qualities you value? You can tell quickly whether the physician is an authoritative type who makes decisions for his patients, or a collaborative caregiver who wants to work with you to come up with the best solution. "It's all about personality style," says internist Kevin Pho of Nashua, N.H., who blogs at KevinMD.com. "Some patients want a laid-back doctor; others want someone who will get right to the point, or who's always on time. There's a whole spectrum of doctor styles out there. If you don't find a good fit on that visit, by all means, go find another who is a good fit."
Honesty is critical to a successful visit. Holding back embarrassing information or shading the truth could jeopardize 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, you'll have to find the resolve to speak up. "Otherwise, you'll go home and just not do it, and that doesn't do anybody any good," Beckman says. "If you're not taking your medications, tell your doctor, and if there's a reason why, tell him—whether it's the side effects or not wanting to deal with being ill."