For most of us, going to the doctor is not at the top of our favorite things-to-do list, but it may be one of the most important. Whether the visit is for a scheduled check-up or to deal with a new problem, there are ways you can make the visit less stressful and more useful.
You must remember that things have changed. In the “good old days,” when I started in practice, the visit involved just the patient and the doctor. Nowadays, there are many other players, who may not be physically present but are influencing the visit, including insurers, lawyers, and the ubiquitous electronic medical record (EMR). I recently saw an article headlined “Don’t let patient care interfere with documentation,” not-so-subtly making the point that doctors are overwhelmed with demands for data to satisfy the demands of multiple third parties; it has been estimated that for every hour directly interacting with patients, doctors spend two hours on administrative tasks. Despite this, most doctors really do want to do what is best for their patients, and you can help them achieve this.
Arrive on time for your visit, but be prepared to wait. Doctors run late for many reasons. It may be the fault of the office, scheduling patients to maximize the doctor’s time at the expense of patient convenience, and if you always wait a long time, you may want to change doctors. More common reasons are that earlier patients arrived late but were seen anyway or that patients had more complicated problems than anticipated, turning a 15-minute visit into 30 minutes or more.
Silence or turn off your cell phone. It is hard enough to have a good conversation about an illness without the distraction of a phone going off. If you actually answer the phone, my reaction would be that since you are clearly not very worried about your health problem, I will not be either.
Do your homework and arrive prepared. While the doctor may be the expert on medicine, you are the expert on your own body, and you are the one to note that while a symptom may not be dramatic, it is new. Before the visit, put things down in chronologic order – what happened first, what happened next, and over roughly what time frame. It is OK to check your symptoms online, but please use a legitimate website such as those that end in “.gov.”
Bring notes and take notes. It is easy to get side-tracked and forget things you thought were important. Have a summary of prior surgery, current medications, medication allergies, and major medical problems printed and on your phone. Since it has been shown that 80+ percent of what a doctor says is forgotten by the time you leave the building, either bring a friend or family member to act as a scribe and second pair of ears or make some written notes. Ask the doctor if it is OK to record the visit so you can listen to the conversation and advice given when you are less stressed.
It is OK to question the doctor. While doctors know a lot more about medicine than you do, we are not infallible. If the doctor dismisses a complaint when you “know” something is wrong, it is reasonable to ask for a second opinion. Misdiagnosis is increasingly recognized as a serious problem. You should be prepared to ask the doctor why they have made a diagnosis and what else it could be. You should also have a timetable for when you should feel better and what the plan is if you do not respond to the suggested treatment.
Remember: It is not your job to please the doctor; it is the doctor’s job to help you feel better. If you have a doctor with whom you cannot communicate, look for another.
Edward Hoffer is an internal medicine physician and author of Prescription for Bankruptcy: A doctor’s perspective on America’s failing health care system and how we can fix it. He blogs at What’s wrong with health care in America?
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