Teach patients to prioritize their problems

How many times have you popped into the exam room for a quick re-check of a patient, only to get hit with a barrage of new symptoms and concerns?

My guess is that at least a third of my day is spent wading through new symptoms, rather than focusing on the problem that originally brought the patient to me in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it that once problem A is improved, problem B raises its hand.

The problem is, as physicians, we can’t see positive results and know when to change course if patients don’t tell us which of our treatment plans are working.

You need to take the lead and guide your patients to prioritize their lists of symptoms. Prioritizing will result in:

  • more streamlined and directed visits
  • more efficiency in scheduling
  • more focus on fixing the most urgent problem first

I believe it’s our responsibility as doctors to teach our patients how to have better physician-patient communication. And in my experience, prioritizing is key.

It starts with direction from our staff.

Here’s what I mean:

  • When patients with multiple medical problems come in for a recheck, ask your staff to triage each patient’s symptoms. Ask the patient to rank their top three concerns, and then name the number one concern of those three.
  • Have your staff prime the pump by discussing the top three symptoms as they are preparing for you to enter the exam room.
  • Encourage patients to create checklists of their medical concerns whenever you speak to them.
  • If the patient gets off course and starts going on about problem #37, gently steer them back to their list of the top three, with particular attention to #1.

Patients can be persistent, so be forewarned: Asking them to limit themselves to only three symptoms won’t be easy.

One of my favorite mentors, Dr. David Saunders, used an adage that holds true to this day: “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”

He usually was referring to one of a multitude of surgical procedures he taught me in my training. But, like all good counsel, it fits in many situations.

I have come to use his saying as one of my mottos.

Helping patients prioritize will take consistent practice by you and your staff.

However, after a few visits, your patients will start to “get it.” They will learn that being focused makes their brief time with you more effective and efficient.

And that points to improved patient care, which is what we’re all about, anyway.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist who blogs at Love Medicine Again.

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