Have you ever been a patient? Yeah, me too. Many newly insured Americans will visit doctors’ offices this year. The average time you — or anyone — has with a primary care provider is 15 minutes. What’s a sick person to do?
Happier patients make happier doctors. Here’s a helpful list that I’ve developed to help patient visits go smoother:
1. Pick three questions or concerns that you have for your doctor and write them down. You may have more than three, but put your top concerns at the top of the list.
2. Take a moment to look around the exam or waiting area. Do you notice pictures of children? Photos that look like snapshots from a recent trip? Awards? A quick comment about something personal, in a conversational tone, will let your doctor know that you realize that they are human, too, not just a medical machine. You and your doctor should function as a team. Get to know a little bit about each other beyond your chart or file.
3. Bring a complete list of your medications — including dosages — and your allergies with you each time you visit to ensure that information is up to date. Use your phone to take photos of pill bottles, write down the information from the labels, or stash the bottles in a zip-top bag and bring them to the appointment. Some patients also bring a list of previous surgeries, and the names and contact information for other doctors they visit.
4. Start a health journal for each member of your family that you can bring to each visit. Use it to compile your questions and answers to help you remember what each doctor has said about each member of the family.
5. Set your intention that you will be well taken care of by every person you encounter at your doctor’s office. We are here to help you. You may be concerned or in pain or frightened. That’s okay. Know that we want the best outcome for you.
6. Be honest. If you haven’t been taking medicine as we prescribed, let us know. And let us know about the use of cigarettes, alcohol, or recreational drugs. We need to know that information to prevent interactions with medications, or if something might impede healing after a procedure.
7. Be mindful of the time you have with the doctor — but also be prepared to wait. We do our best to see patients on time. We really do. But sometimes a routine visit turns into a longer conversation as we advise a patient about treating a newly diagnosed cancer. Please know that we hate it as much as we do when we run late. But if you are ever the one with an emergency or in need of extra time, you’ll be grateful when we can spend a little extra time with you.
8. Make a wait as pleasant as possible. Bring something to read, healthy snacks, water, work to do on your laptop, knitting, crossword puzzles. Redefine the inconvenience of waiting as an opportunity to get a few things done without the usual distractions.
9. Bring a trusted friend or family member with you to be an extra set of ears, to remind you of what was said during the visit and to help you remember details for your health journal (see 4).
10. Be your own advocate. If you feel as though your doctor may not be right for you, you may be right. If you feel as though your doctor isn’t hearing your concerns — despite you being as clear as possible — then it may be time to find another doctor. And if your doctor has a problem with you for seeking a second opinion, then you should have a problem with that doctor. A good doctor-patient relationship can help put the “heal” back in health care.
Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker, and personal coach. She blogs at Love Medicine Again and is the author of Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.