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Making the Most of Your Medical Appointments

Updated: May 1, 2023

Visits to the doctor can be anxiety-provoking, stressful, and sometimes downright unpleasant. The healthcare system can be confusing and overwhelming, doctors are often behind schedule, and patients may be frustrated, uncomfortable, or worried about their health. While some challenges may be unavoidable, there are some things you can do to ensure a more productive, satisfying visit with your physician.

Making the Appointment:

Like most things in life, a successful encounter with your physician begins with a strong foundation. When you call to schedule your appointment, clearly state the reason for your visit. Some patients are hesitant to tell the receptionist the “real” reason they want to see the doctor; they may minimize (or exaggerate) their symptoms. Most physicians provide their staff with guidelines for scheduling appointments. A patient with multiple, complicated, or severe symptoms will be allotted more time than one with a straightforward or mild complaint. The nature of your symptoms may dictate when (e.g., immediately, later the same day, or next week) and where (e.g., office, emergency department, or virtually) you will be seen. Communicating effectively with the receptionist increases the likelihood that you will be seen at the appropriate time and place and given the amount of time required to meet your needs.

Expert tips:

  • If you can secure the first appointment of the day or the first appointment after lunch, your doctor is more likely to be on time.

  • Be nice to the receptionist! Being nice is not only just the right thing to do; staff are much more likely to be accommodating if you treat them well. Everyone wins!

Planning/Preparing for your Appointment:

Jot down your main concerns before your visit so you don’t forget anything. Remember to bring helpful data to share with your doctor. If you measure your blood pressure or glucose levels at home, bring a copy of the results. If you have a smartwatch that measures your heart rate (especially if there have been any “alarms” for abnormalities), share those numbers. Bring a current list of medications and dosages and the contact information for any other physicians or healthcare providers you see. If you receive all of your care in one healthcare system, your doctor should be able to access your records in the electronic health record. If you see providers outside of that system, bring copies of those records and ask the staff to add them to your chart when you arrive.

Expert tips:

  • Check the office website (or ask your new friend, the receptionist!) for forms you can complete prior to your arrival.

  • Take advantage of technology. If you have a camera on your phone, take pictures of your medication bottles to document names and doses. You can also use the camera to document intermittent symptoms like rashes that may not be present at the time of your visit.

Arriving at the Appointment:

Try to arrive at least 15 minutes before your scheduled appointment. Ideally, if your appointment is at 10:00, you will be in the exam room and ready for the doctor at 10:00. Before seeing the doctor, you may need to complete paperwork, change into a gown, and speak with the medical assistant or nurse. You will likely have your vital signs checked before the doctor sees you, and nothing raises your blood pressure like the stress of running into the office at the last minute!

Expert tip:

  • Bring something to occupy you if you do need to wait for your appointment. A good book, crossword puzzles, or some games loaded onto your phone can help pass the time.

During the Appointment:

Come prepared with an organized “story” to tell your doctor. (Click here for link to article on how to tell a story like a doctor). At the beginning of the visit, tell the doctor, “I have x main concerns,” and then list them, starting with the most important. This overview helps your doctor start to think about what additional information he or she will need to address your concerns.

Expert tip:

  • Don’t wait until the end of the appointment to mention a major issue. Doctors dread hearing, “By the way…” as they are about to leave the exam room, and they may not have the time to assess your problem appropriately.

Wrapping it Up:

At the end of the visit, make sure you understand what comes next. If your doctor recommends a treatment, ask in what specific way the treatment should help you and when you should reasonably expect to see a response. Ask, “What are the reasons I should call you?” (e.g., new symptoms develop, failure to respond to treatment in x days) and “When should I make my next appointment?”. Many offices provide a written summary of your visit when you check out after your visit. You are entitled to a copy of the visit note, free of charge. Because many physicians complete their charts at the end of the day, the complete visit note may not be available before you leave the office. Notes should be available on the patient portal. If you do not have access to a patient portal, ask the doctor or a staff member how you can obtain a copy of the visit note. Keep these documents for your records and share them with others who are involved in your care.

Expert tips:

  • Write down the names and doses of any medications the doctor is prescribing and compare this to the bottles you get from the pharmacist. While doctors and pharmacists do their best, we are all human and errors sometimes occur.

  • If permitted by your doctor’s office, consider asking a friend or family member to accompany you (in person or by phone/video chat) to your appointment.

  • A professional health advocate is a tremendous resource. They can help you understand and process information, prepare you for, and even accompany you to visits with your physician or other health care providers.

This blog is for informational purposes only. In her role as an independent health advocate, Dr. Trend does not provide medical care or medical advice. Clients are advised to seek the advice of their personal physician(s).

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