Improve doctor visits by bringing checklists to check ups

Have you ever returned home from a visit with your doctor and realized that you forgot to ask the one question that you really wanted an answer to? I certainly have. In fact during a recent visit with my doctor, I had every intention of asking her about a vague symptom that I had been experiencing in recent months. It was on the forefront of my mind, but when I got there, somehow I forgot to mention it.

Even though I’ve been a nurse practitioner for over a decade, I now follow the advice I always give to my own patients: Prepare!

Since doctors are now spending an average of 7 minutes with their patients, taking a few minutes to get organized before your appointment is crucial.

Here are 8 ways to make the most of your next medical visit:

Before your visit

1. Make early appointments. Scheduling the earliest available appointment will minimize your chances of waiting for a doctor who gets backed up with patients.

2. Get your health information in order. If necessary, arrange for transfer of medical records, and obtain X-rays, pathology reports, lab results or any other documents that your doctor may need ahead of time.

3. Call your insurance company to ask if you need pre-approvals for any of your healthcare services. Not all services require this, but it never hurts to ask. And if you are seeing a specialist for the first time, check to see if you need a referral from your primary care physician.

4. Make a list of targeted questions. Think of what you’d like to ask your doctor or healthcare provider. Keep your list short—no more than 3 questions or concerns that are relevant to the reason for your visit.

5. And it’s always helpful to have on hand:

  • Your health history
  • An updated medication list
  • Your insurance card
  • Notes from recent medical visits
  • A support person – someone who can serve as a second set of eyes and ears

During your visit

6. Stay focused. What’s the main reason you made the appointment? For example, if you are seeing your doctor because you’ve been having headaches, focus on that. You have a limited amount of time with your provider—make it count.

7. Ask questions. If you are given a new diagnosis, find out the following:

  • How certain are you about this diagnosis?
  • What else could this be?
  • Are there other tests that can be performed?
  • Is there anything in my history that has contributed to this?
  • How is this treated?
  • Repeat back what you have heard, to make sure both you and the doctor are on the same page.

8. Know your next steps. Before you leave, be sure to ask:

  • What is the follow-up plan?
  • Who do I call with questions?
  • When should I schedule my next appointment?

Some patients express concern that having a checklist like this would seem too pushy. I disagree. Physicians and other healthcare providers commonly see 30 or more patients in one day—being prepared saves time for you and your doctor and ensures that your most important questions get answered.

Crystal Fornes is a nurse practitioner. She is working with Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Chief Medical Editor of NBC News, and Alan Blaustein, cancer survivor, to start CarePlanners, a network of healthcare experts that help patients and caregivers navigate, coordinate and organize their healthcare. 

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