Getting ready for a doctor’s visit
A basic plan can help you get the most out of your medical appointment:
• Make a list of your concerns and prioritize them — Do you have a new symptom you want to ask the doctor about
• Do you want to get a flu shot? Are you concerned about how a treatment is affecting your daily life? If you have more than a few items to discuss, put them in order. Start with the ones most important to you.
• Plan to update the doctor — Let your doctor know what has happened to your health since your last visit. If you have been treated in the emergency room or by a specialist, tell the doctor right away. Mention any changes in your appetite, weight, sleep, energy level, vision, or hearing. Also tell the doctor about recent changes in medications you take or their effects on you.
• Take information with you — Bring a list of all your prescription drugs, over-the- counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal remedies or supplements, including the dose. Or, put them all in a bag and bring them with you to your appointment. Also take your insurance cards, the names and phone numbers of your other doctors, and any medical records your doctor doesn’t already have.
• Make sure you can see and hear as well as possible — If you use eyeglasses and/or a hearing aid, wear them at the doctor’s visit. Let the doctor and staff know if you have a hard time seeing or hearing. For example, you may want to say: “My hearing makes it hard to understand everything you’re saying. It helps when you speak slowly.”
• Consider bringing a family member or friend — If you bring a companion to the appointment, tell him or her in advance what you want from your visit and if you’d like some alone time with your doctor. Your companion can remind you what you planned to discuss with the doctor if you forget, take notes during the visit, and help you remember what the doctor said.
• Plan for an interpreter if you know you’ll need one — Arrange with your doctor’s office for an interpreter before your visit. Make sure the interpreter clearly understands your symptoms and/or condition, so the information is accurately communicated to the doctor. Let the doctor, your interpreter, or the staff know if you do not understand your diagnosis or the treatment instructions.
Remembering what the doctor says
No matter what your age, it’s easy to forget a lot of what your doctor says. Here are some ideas to help make sure you have all the information you need.
• Take notes — Take along a notepad and something to write with, and jot down the main points, or ask the doctor to write them down for you. If you can’t write while the doctor is talking to you, make notes in the waiting room after the visit. Or, bring a tape recorder along, and (with the doctor’s permission) record what is said. Recording is especially helpful if you want to share the details of the visit with others.
• Make sure you understand — It is hard to remember a diagnosis or instructions about a treatment that you don’t understand. Ask about anything that does not seem clear. For instance, you might say: “I want to make sure I understand. Could you explain that a little more?” or “I’m not familiar with that word. What does it mean?” Another way to check is to repeat what you think the doctor means in your own words and ask, “Is this correct?”
• Get written or recorded materials — Ask if your doctor has any brochures, fact sheets, DVDs, CDs, cassettes, or videotapes about your health conditions or treatments. For example, if your doctor says that your blood pressure is high, he or she may give you brochures explaining what causes high blood pressure and what you can do about it. Ask the doctor to recommend other sources, such as websites, public libraries, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies that may have written or recorded information you can use.
• Talk to other members of the healthcare team — Sometimes the doctor may want you to talk with other health professionals who can help you understand and carry out the decisions about how to manage your condition. Nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, and occupational or physical therapists may be able to take more time with you than the doctor.
• Call or email the doctor — If you are uncertain about the doctor’s instructions after you get home, call the office. A nurse or other staff member can check with the doctor and call you back. You could ask whether the doctor, or other health professional you have talked to, has an email address you can use to send questions.
Keeping track of your medications
The accompanying chart can help you keep track of the different medicines, vitamins and over-the-counter drugs you take. Because your medications may change over time, make a copy of the blank form so you will always have a clean copy to use. Try to bring a completed and updated copy of this form to every doctor appointment.
Making good use of your time during a doctor’s visit
• Be honest — It is tempting to say what you think the doctor wants to hear, like you have stopped smoking or are eating a more balanced diet. This is natural, but it’s not in your best interest. Your doctor needs all the facts to suggest the best treatment for you. For instance, you might say: “I have been trying to eat fewer sweets, as you recommended, but I am not making much headway.”
• Decide what questions are most important — Pick three or four questions or concerns that you most want to talk about with the doctor. You can tell him or her what they are at the beginning of the appointment, and then discuss each in turn. If you have time, you can then go on to other questions.
• Stick to the point — Although your doctor might like to talk with you at length, there is only a limited amount of time for each patient. To make the best use of your time, give the doctor a brief description of the symptom, when it started, how often it happens, and if it is getting worse or better.
• Share your point of view about the visit — Tell the doctor if you feel rushed, worried, or uncomfortable. If necessary, you can offer to return for a second visit to discuss your concerns more fully. Try to voice your feelings in a positive way. For example, you could say something like: “I know you have many patients to see, but I’m really worried about this. I’d feel much better if we could talk about it a little more.”
• Remember the doctor may not be able to answer all your questions — Even the best doctor may not have answers to some of your questions. Your doctor may be able to help you find the information or refer you to a specialist. If a doctor regularly brushes off your questions or symptoms as simply a part of aging, think about looking for another doctor.
Questions to ask during a medical appointment
• What will the test tell us?
• What does it involve?
• How should I get ready?
• Will insurance pay it? If not, how much will it cost?
• Are there any dangers or side effects?
• How and when will I find out the results? Can I get a copy?
• What may have caused this condition?
• How long will it last? Is it permanent?
• How is this condition treated or managed?
• How will it affect me? What might be the long-term effects?
• How can I learn more?
• What are my treatment choices?
• What are the risks and benefits?
• Ask yourself — which treatment is best for me, given my values and circumstances?
• When will it start working?
• What are common side effects?
• Will I need a refill? How do I arrange that?
• Should I take it with food? What time of day should I take it?
• Should I avoid anything while taking it?
• What if I miss a dose?
• What can I do to prevent a health problem from developing or getting worse?
• How will changing my habits help?
• Are there any risks to making this change?
• Are there support groups or community services that might help me?
— National Institutes of Health