By now, it’s a world-famous statistic: Experts have found that doctors tend to interrupt patients just 20–30 seconds after they begin speaking during an office visit. But the truth is, bossy doctors are just one reason you may feel short-changed when you leave your physician’s office. The visit itself may feel way too short — because it is. Many office visits last 20 minutes or less, barely enough time to discuss something as important as your health.
Meanwhile, we don’t always use our time with the doctor to our best advantage. A Dutch study found that half of all visitors to the family doctor hadn’t decided in advance what they wanted to talk about; 77 percent did absolutely nothing to prepare for their visit; and 80 percent didn’t bring a list of questions with them.
Given the brevity of most doctors’ appointments, being ready to give — and get — information should be your top priority. “Having a good relationship with your doctor is important. You should be comfortable discussing your lifestyle and health history so your doctor can best address your health concerns and keep you healthy,” says Caroline Rudnick, MD, PhD, a Saint Louis University family physician. “Information is a powerful weapon, and if I’m armed, I can do a better job helping a patient fight to stay healthy.”
Here’s how to prepare for your visit, and feel confident about asking questions during your appointment:
1. Study up before your visit.
Do: Research your condition, as well as any other medical conditions or concerns you may have, by gathering information from reputable websites. Generally, government health websites and those maintained by medical associations, large non-profit groups dedicated to a single medical condition, and university medical centers have the most trustworthy, up-to-date medical information. Make notes and create questions.
Don’t: Hand your doctor a huge sheaf of printouts and expect her to respond to them during your visit. And don’t try to diagnose your symptoms or self prescribe your remedies. It’s still up to your doctor to do that.
2. Make a list of questions and prioritize them.
You’ll feel more confident when talking with your doctor — and you’ll get the answers and info you need. The bonus: In one review of 33 office-visit studies, researchers found that people who brought checklists got more time with their doctor.Once you’re in the exam room, don’t be afraid to give your doctor the list. “I always ask to see it, so that I can be sure that important questions aren’t left for the last minute of our visit,” Dr. Stall says. “It’s OK to give your list to your doctor — and OK to ask him or her to give it back so that you can refer to it.”
In one study, older people who practiced their questions just before a doctor’s appointment were nearly twice as likely to speak up during the visit than people who didn’t rehearse.
4. Bring a family member or friend along.
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Another person who knows about your health and your concerns can help you listen carefully, ask the right questions, and even help you make important decisions during a doctor’s appointment.
5. Carry a tape recorder.
Replaying an audiotape of your visit could assist you in better understanding instructions and information that you may have missed or not fully understood at the time.
6. Bring in your meds.
Get a canvas tote bag and designate it as your “medicine tote.” Several times a year, toss in all your prescription drugs as well as herbal supplements, vitamins, and over-the-counter remedies and bring it to your doctor’s appointment. This will help your doctor understand if you’re experiencing any problems with drug interactions or if you’re taking any drugs you really don’t need.
7. Ask what tests you need and when to get them.
8. Tell your doctor ALL about you.
If you haven’t done so already, give your doctor your past health history, your family’s health history, and your own lifestyle history at your next annual check-up. When discussing your own past, include major illnesses, allergies, and drug reactions. Family history? Summarize the major illnesses of your first-degree relatives (parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents), and pay special attention to medical conditions such as diabetes that seem to run in the family. Clue your doctor in on your own lifestyle — tell her how much you exercise, what and how you eat, whether you have a pet you enjoy, how stressed you are, whether you smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, any over-the-counter or prescription drugs (from another doc) that you take regularly. Include any risky sports you enjoy: Do you bungee-jump, skydive or ski down the expert slopes?
9. Evaluate your doctor.
Is she too bossy? Is he too deferential? Does your doctor interrupt you? Does he take your views as seriously as you’d like? Try discussing your concerns first, and make a good-faith effort to build a relationship of trust and respect with your physician. But if it’s not working out, don’t feel obligated to stay. Studies show, patients who don’t trust their doctors simply don’t get well as quickly, probably because they’re less motivated to follow advice and treatment. Ask to see another doctor in the same practice, or ask friends and family for recommendations for a new doctor.