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 Drugs.com, 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.
[Find a Top Doctor near you.]
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."
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 via phone, ask to speak with a nurse. A growing number of doctors also communicate with patients via E-mail, and some even respond to text messages and set up Skype appointments—ideal for minor questions. Let the practice 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.