Making the most of medical visits: Tips for communicating with your doctor

By Lisa M. Petsche

These days, health care is viewed as a partnership between patient and provider, with both parties responsible for ensuring a constructive relationship. Patients – also now referred to as health care consumers – are taking a more active role than ever in this regard.

Good communication is essential, of course, to any positive doctor-patient relationship, whether it involves your primary physician or a specialist recommended by him or her. The following are some ways you can do your part to make the most of medical visits.

Before an appointment
  • Make a list of the things you want to discuss, in order of priority. Also jot down any symptoms you’re experiencing, including their frequency, duration and intensity, and how they are affecting your daily life. Note, too, any treatments you have tried. Always bring a list of the medications you’re taking – prescription and over-the-counter drugs as well as any natural remedies – including the dosage.
  • Bring along a note pad and pen to jot down key information.
  • Consider asking a good friend or family member to accompany you; they can help with processing information and remembering instructions. They may also have questions that hadn’t occurred to you.
During the visit
  • If you have a hearing or visual impairment, let the doctor know at the outset of the visit.
  • Share information. Provide as much detail as possible about any problems you are experiencing and how these are affecting you. Don’t leave out anything–let the doctor decide what’s relevant. Share your list of medications, too. Be honest about your lifestyle and habits – for example, if you’re diabetic but you don’t stick to the recommended diet, or you haven’t been taking medications as prescribed. Let the doctor know about anything going on in your life that may be contributing to your situation – for example, a recent loss or other traumatic event that’s causing significant stress.
  • Write down important information provided to you. If you have brought someone along, ask him or her to do this so you can give the doctor your undivided attention.
  • Ask for details. If you’re diagnosed with a medical condition, inquire about what to expect, including how long it’s likely to last, treatment or management options, and where you can get more information. For any recommended test or treatment, inquire about cost, where it must be done, what’s involved, benefits and risks, and alternatives.
  • Request a layperson’s explanation if you don’t understand medical jargon used by the doctor. Summarize aloud the information he or she gives you, to check if you have interpreted it correctly.
  • Don’t try to be an expert. While there’s a wealth of medical information readily available to consumers these days (especially via the Internet), and it’s good to be informed, don’t act as if you know more than the doctor does. Be tactful if you wish to challenge findings or recommendations. For example, it’s much less threatening to say, “I’ve read about a new medication called X; what do you think of it for my situation?” rather than, “Why aren’t you prescribing X?”
  • Don’t hesitate to voice doubts, worries or fears. If, after your doctor addresses them, you’re still uncomfortable with a diagnosis or the treatment options presented to you, request a second opinion.
  • Don’t worry about taking up too much of your doctor’s time. Ask all of your questions and express any concerns. However, prioritize your issues (lower priority ones may have to wait for another appointment), be concise and don’t get off topic.
  • Before leaving, make sure you are clear about any next steps – for example, whether you should schedule another appointment, when and how you’ll learn of test results, and what you should do if your condition worsens or you experience an adverse reaction to a new medication.
  • Ask about the best time to call if any more questions occur to you after you leave the office.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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