How to Get the Most Out of a Doctor’s Visit

Tips physicians recommend on being a good patient

The best patients make efficient use of the limited time during their doctors’ visits and follow through on medical advice, family physicians say. 

The best patients make efficient use of the limited time during their doctors’ visits and follow through on medical advice, family physicians say. ILLUSTRATION: MORGAN SCHWEITZER

 

By SUMATHI REDDY
Having just 15 to 20 minutes with a doctor might seem awfully short, but that’s how long most physicians’ visits last.
Doctors might not get all the information they need to fully understand a patient’s condition. And there are few things more frustrating for a patient than to leave the doctor’s office and suddenly remember something you forgot to ask.
Lani Calder, a 67-year-old retired teacher who splits her time between Ohio and Florida, takes the job of being a good patient pretty seriously. She charts her blood sugar, thyroid and other test results at home. She also brings in a list of questions to her doctors’ visits and takes notes on what they tell her.
Her efforts are appreciated by her longtime family physician, Thomas Albani in Canfield, Ohio, who says her organization and follow through make his job easier.
To get the most out of the limited time in a doctor’s office, and perhaps have a healthier outcome, here are tips that doctors recommend.

ILLUSTRATION: MORGAN SCHWEITZER

Ask questions

Doctors suggest writing out a list of your questions before a visit to ensure you remember them. “Asking questions and resolving doubts is really important in moving forward as a patient,” says Richard Ryan, a psychology professor at University of Rochester in New York who has studied patient adherence and motivation. Rank the questions in order of importance in case you can’t get to everything in one visit.
Mind the time

Stay focused on why you’re there. “I like a little chitchat, I like to know my patients’ stories and personally interact with them,” says Shannon Dowler, a family physician in Asheville, N.C. “But if you spend 10 minutes showing me pictures of your beautiful grandchildren then that’s half of our office visit.” Call ahead if you’re running a few minutes late for your appointment or need to cancel, she says. And to minimize waiting time, book the first morning appointment or the one right after lunch.
Bring your meds

That includes herbal and over-the-counter medicines and prescriptions you’ve gotten from another doctor. “I have patients seeing a cardiologist, a nephrologist, a lung specialist all at the same time,” says Dr. Albani. “Somebody can make one change which makes a difference.” And bring the actual bottles with the original labels. “We can double check the dosing and make sure we haven’t made an error or the pharmacy didn’t make an error,” adds Dr. Dowler.

ILLUSTRATION: MORGAN SCHWEITZER

Take notes

Writing down what the doctor says can help jog your memory after the visit is over. “We know patients forget most of what a physician says as soon as they walk out,” says Bryan Murphey, chairman of NCH Physicians Group, an internal medicine practice in Naples, Fla. “We try to write things down for them. But they can read their handwriting better than they can read mine.”
Tell the truth

Uncomfortable topics, such as poor eating habits and medication adherence, or risky sexual practices, can cause patients to avoid or sugarcoat the subject. And don’t leave things out, such as symptoms that may or may not be important. “It’s really hard to surprise us,” says Dr. Dowler. “If you’re not being truthful then we can’t do the best job of taking care of you.”

ILLUSTRATION: MORGAN SCHWEITZER

Bring a friend

Going to an appointment accompanied by a spouse, a grown child or a friend is particularly important if, for example, you’re expecting important test results. Older people, who may have trouble understanding or remembering things, can especially benefit. “If it’s a test result that shows a cancer, a lot of people will just stop hearing what you say after the word ‘cancer’ and that’s all they will remember. Having somebody else there can help with that,” says Dr. Albani.
Be realistic

Having a hard time getting more exercise like the doctor told you to? Don’t skip your follow-up appointment. Instead, discuss with your doctor whether the goal is set too high. It’s important to develop a treatment plan that you know you can follow, so let your doctor know what’s realistic. And ask the doctor to repeat instructions if you need to. “Don’t feel embarrassed to ask a question if you don’t understand something,” says Michael Rabovsky, chairman of the family medicine department at Cleveland Clinic.
By the way…

When a health concern provokes anxiety, some patients need to work up the nerve to ask about it, sometimes when the doctor is about to walk out the door. “This happens more often than you’d think” says Dr. Dowler. “Delaying the most difficult issue can mean that gets the least amount of time in the visit.” Bring up the most important issues first, she suggests. Having a list that you share with the doctor can help with this.
Write to Sumathi Reddy at sumathi.reddy@wsj.com

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