How to make the most of your doctor’s appointment
Some people walk out of their family doctor’s office feeling confused or once they reach the parking lot, realize they forgot to mention something crucial.
This isn’t good for anyone, say doctors. “We want people to feel that they were heard and that they have a plan that they understand,” said Dr. Jeanette Boyd, a family physician in Nelson, B.C., and the president of the BC College of Family Physicians.
Here are some tips from doctors to make your visit go as smoothly as possible.
Before your appointment
Make a list
It’s often useful for patients to write a list of all their concerns, said Boyd. You might have a single issue or several problems, but writing them all down ensures that you don’t forget anything.
Describe your symptoms
Whatever the illness, you’re going to be asked to describe it. So thinking about what exactly the problem is ahead of time will help ensure you don’t miss any details that could help the doctor figure out what’s wrong.
According to Boyd, some helpful things to think about include:
- When the issue started
- Where it’s located
- Whether it’s always there, or if it comes and goes
- What makes your symptoms better or worse
- What time of day your symptoms appear
- Whether there is anything new in your routine that could be contributing to your problem
- Whether you have been to a walk-in clinic or another medical practitioner already about this
You should also describe what exactly you’re worried about, said Dr. Alan Ng, a family physician and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s family medicine program. If you’re worried that your cough might be pneumonia, tell the doctor and tell them also why you think that.
Both Ng and Boyd agree that it’s very important to let the doctor know if your condition is affecting your daily life.
“Are you finding it more difficult to interact with your family or attend to things at work or do the things that you enjoy?” said Boyd. If so, make a note and be sure to tell your doctor.
During the visit
Once you have discussed your problem with your doctor at the appointment, you’ll likely begin to discuss next steps, like tests, medication or referrals to address the problem.
Before you leave, you should understand the answers to three main questions, said Boyd.
What is my main problem?
You should understand what the doctor thinks the major problem is. It’s possible they don’t know yet, and you should understand that too.
What do I need to do?
You should understand exactly what actions you need to take to fix the problem, said Boyd, whether it’s taking a medication, going to get a test done or lifestyle adjustments like eating more healthily.
Why is it important for me to do this?
Boyd thinks that it’s also important you understand why the particular intervention is needed and exactly how it will help. Sometimes, a doctor might prescribe a blood pressure medication, for example, even though you’re not showing symptoms. If you don’t understand that it’s to prevent a possible heart attack five years from now, you might be less inclined to take it, she said.
Additionally, if you anticipate having any trouble following the doctor’s orders, you should let them know. Doctors don’t want to tell a patient what to do “without paying attention or considering whether this plan is even possible in the context of the patient’s life,” said Ng.
If you are worried that you won’t be able to afford the medication, or that you can’t take time off work to get counselling or physiotherapy, for example, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to tell the doctor, said Boyd. Often, they might be able to suggest something else you could try.
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If you don’t understand something, ask.
“It’s important that the patient fully understands what the doctor is telling them about the diagnosis,” said Ng. “We tend to use a lot of jargon that we don’t realize we use. Even relatively simple terms like inflammation or infection, it’s hard to know what exactly that means to a patient.”
Both he and Boyd encourage patients to ask as many questions as possible until you understand everything the doctor told you.
After the visit
If you’re given a referral, you should know how long you should wait to hear about an appointment, said Boyd. And if you don’t hear by that deadline, whether you should call your family doctor’s office.
The same goes for test results – you should know how long it will take, and if you don’t hear anything, Boyd suggests you call the doctor.
“I don’t think it’s safe for people to assume ‘no news is good news.’”
You should also know when to come back to the office for a followup appointment or what to do if your medication doesn’t work or you have side-effects.
This might seem like a lot to remember. Ask the doctor to write it down for you if it’s tough, said Boyd, or for a particularly complex case, consider bringing a friend for moral support as well as an extra set of ears.
There are a number of helpful worksheets available on the BC government’s website, she said, that patients can download and fill in before and during their appointments.
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