By Mark A. Kelley, MD |7/12/17
Everyone in health care is busy these days. Most doctors have full schedules and patients often can’t afford to take time off from work.
Neither patients nor doctors are satisfied with this situation. However, once you and your doctor get together, there are ways you can make the visit more valuable.
Doctor appointments fall into two different categories:
• Urgent visits: For true emergencies, you should seek immediate medical attention. For a problem that is not an emergency but worries you, the best approach is to contact your doctor’s office. Your doctor may be able to solve the problem by phone or work you quickly into the office schedule.
• Routine planned visits: These visits are usually for a new consultation or a follow-up for a known condition. You can get more from these scheduled visits if you do some preparation.
The New Consultation
You can take a few steps to ensure a new consultation goes as smoothly as possible.
• Educate yourself beforehand: Understand the reason for the consultation from your referring doctor. Have you read up on your particular problem? Have you checked the credentials and experience of the new doctor? Is this new doctor affiliated with a hospital that you like? Does the doctor accept your insurance?
• Bring your medical records, drug list, and results of any lab/radiology studies: This step can make a major difference in your first visit. Medical records provide a clear picture of your health history. The doctor can read faster than you can talk, and this written information frees up time for the doctor to have a better conversation with you. The information may also reduce the need for more tests, allowing the doctor to focus on a diagnosis and treatment plan.
• Prepare a list of questions in advance: Make a list that you can share with the doctor. This conversation will help you to understand the medical issues involved, as well as help the doctor understand your concerns.
• Ask a close relative or friend to accompany you on the visit: This has several advantages. Your relative may remember something about your medical history that you forgot to mention. They may also be helpful in remembering specific details that the doctor mentions. Additionally, it is always comforting to have a close companion with you to provide support.
• Ask the doctor to summarize their findings and recommendations for you: Then, in your own words, repeat the summary back to the doctor. This will help you remember details and ensure that you and your doctor are on the same page regarding your problem and action plan. Don’t be shy about asking questions. Doctors want their patients to be well informed.
• Understand the plan and goals before the next visit: These may include any new medications, tests, procedures, or therapies. For each one, consider asking the following questions: How does this test or therapy work? Why do I need it? How long will I need it? What are its benefits? What are its risks? For a new medication, what side effects should I look for? Will it interfere with my current medication? If I have a problem, who should I contact?
• Ask for a printout: Request hardcopies of any diagnosis, medications (especially new ones), or tests before you leave the office. You can also ask the doctor to send you a written summary of the visit for your records. By law, you are entitled to this information, and physicians are usually glad to provide it.
• Learn more about your condition: Although you may have read about the subject beforehand, your doctor may direct you to other helpful resources. The information may come in the form of written materials or online resources. HealthWeb Navigator can direct you to the most trustworthy, independently reviewed health websites online today.
Follow-up visits are scheduled so that the doctor and patient can monitor progress together. You should expect to discuss the following issues with your doctor:
• Are you feeling better or worse?
• Are there any problems to report? If so, let the doctor know early in the visit. They can evaluate whether this issue is serious and/or related to other conditions.
• Are you taking your medicines as prescribed?
• Have you had any new tests or other doctor visits recently? The doctor may not have the results but should be able to get them quickly.
• Do you have any questions about your condition?
• Do you understand the treatment plan? Before you leave the appointment, be sure you receive written summaries and instructions.
Based on my decades of practice, this preparation makes the office visit more productive for doctor and patient alike.
Sometimes routine follow-up visits become “too routine.” Physicians know that patients spend a lot of time and money on medications and doctor visits. If you are doing well and everything has been under control, you may want to pose the following questions to your doctor:
• Can I cut back on any of my medicines (or even stop them)?
• Can I reduce the number of routine follow-up visits?
• Can some of these follow-ups be done by phone or email?
Physicians are modernizing their practices to suit your needs. I suspect that most are more than willing to discuss these requests.