Doctor appointment tips every patient can use

Doctors, both generalists and specialists, have constraints on their time. New practices and new approaches need to happen in order to maximize everyone’s time. In addition to bringing your co-payment, you should “invest” in the visit and do your part, so that by the time the visit has ended, a successful plan of care is developed.

Here are some helpful tips to make the most of your medical appointments.

  • The relationship between you and your doctor is a special one based on trust and mutual respect. It is important to ask questions that concern you — up front. It is normal to feel uncomfortable about discussing certain topics such as antibiotics after sexual intercourse. However, if you don’t tell me, I can’t help you.
  • Successful planning begins at home. Bring important records with you which should include your recent laboratory test results, a current list of your present and past diagnoses, and a current medication list based on the medicines you are presently taking and how often you take your pills. Every piece of information is a clue to making a diagnosis. For instance, as a kidney specialist, it makes a difference to me if you are taking Lasix once or twice a day.
  • Repetition is a good thing. Sometimes patients get annoyed that they have to repeat information. For clarity, I like it. Although the nurse may take your current medication list for the chart, I like to see what you are taking. Bringing an up to date list saves both you and me valuable time because I can read quickly.
  • You should bring your records to the appointment. What if the electronic medical record is down? What if we can’t find your chart? What if you see a doctor in a different system? Although exceedingly rare, problems do occur. Google Health, a flash drive with records, or paper speeds up the process. Then you don’t have to wait for “old records” to be faxed to the clinic. Not infrequently I hear, “They told me they were going to send the records.” Although people’s intentions are good, sometimes records do not get sent by the time of the appointment.
  • You should keep a list of your over the counter medications, alternative therapies, and vitamins. Some of these medicines interact with prescription medication, and these interactions can adversely affect therapy. For example, there is a known interaction between warfarin (coumadin) and cranberry juice that can affect INR (blood thinning) levels. Your doctor needs to know how you are treating particular conditions such as the prevention of urinary tract infection.
  • Know the physicians you see and why you see them. “Dr. Aaronson, the nephrologist, treats my blood pressure. Dr. Van De Graaff, the cardiologist, treats my heart failure and put in my pacemaker. Dr. Schwartz, the internist, treats my high cholesterol.” Why is this tip so important? Dr. Schwartz may assume that Dr. Van De Graaf is treating high cholesterol. Dr. Van De Graaf may assume that Dr. Schwartz is treating high cholesterol. And the end result is nobody is treating the high cholesterol! By defining who takes care of which problem, nothing inadvertently gets missed.
    • Also, please remember to ask for a business card. Consider bringing these cards with you to every visit.
  • If you think it will be helpful, bring along a family member. Friends are also welcome. Accompanied by friends and family, you can have advocates present to help you understand what the doctor said or write down key points learned at the visit.
  • Make sure you understand what happens next. When will you see the doctor next? When does a blood draw need to happen? Also, make sure there is a mechanism in place so that if your symptoms worsen or don’t improve you can get help. Emergency room visits or hospitalizations can be prevented.
  • “Doctor-speak” is a foreign language to most consumers of healthcare. These words are important however because that’s how providers communicate with one another. You need to know the words and what they mean. I’m not asking you to memorize a medical dictionary, just the words used to describe the conditions you have.
    • My job is to help explain what those words mean. I frequently write the patient’s diagnosis on a piece of paper and provide a description of what that means.
    • Feel free to look up the terms on the internet to learn more or ask me if you don’t understand what I’m talking about.
    • In the event you can’t remember your diagnoses, make sure you always have an updated list with you so that your provider can take great care of you.

Remember that we all must work as a team to help make the medical visit productive and valuable.

Communication is the key to getting value from your medical appointment. Mutual understanding and shared decision making helps you adhere to the medical plan and helps me give you world class care.

Michael Aaronson is a nephrologist who blogs at his self-titled blog, Michael L. Aaronson M.D.

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  • Arnold P. Gold Foundation

    Always great tips here! Since one can never be too well prepared, here’s another set of guidelines to help patients make the most of time with their doctors.

  • HJ

    “You should bring your records to the appointment.”

    So you are really going to thumb through my 4 cm thick pile of medical records?

  • Michael L. Aaronson MD

    What I mean by bringing your records is a recent history and physical or a discharge summary from a recent hospitalization. It turns out that most of the 4 cm of data can be extracted to a 2-4 page document. That’s it!

  • Earl Whipple

    Very informative and pragmatic post. I completely agree that effective communication between patients and their physicians is critical for both to get the most value from their medical appointments. Simple actions like those mentioned by Dr. Aaronson can make a big difference – I practice some of them but I still have more to do.

  • stargirl65

    Most of my patients show up and do not even know what medicines they are on. They expect the records in my office to know the medicines for them. Most of the time we are right. Occasionally the computers go down and then we know NOTHING. (This amazingly happens less often than we used to temporarily lose paper charts.) Patients also assume I know every medicine that every other doctor has prescribed to them no matter where they go, even across state lines. Patients need to be partially responsible for their own health care. They need to know their medical problems, medications, and allergies at a minimum.

  • Mike

    My Neurosurgeon and GP were over an hour away from each other and despite their best efforts, communication was not always the best. I quickly learned to bring a list of all medication to both doctors.

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