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Making the Most of Your Doctor's Visit

When was the last time you felt relaxed at a doctor’s appointment?

Key points

  • Being organized and prepared can help you and your doctor or other healthcare provider make the most of appointments.
  • Doctor’s appointments are scheduled to last a specific length of time, make sure to keep your questions on topic.
  • Take your health into your own hands: feeling in charge of your healthcare is a big step towards mind-body-spirit health and wellness.

When was the last time you felt relaxed at a doctor’s appointment?

No hurry, just you and your health care provider discussing your symptoms, reviewing your general health, and maybe wrapping up with some routine tests.

You’d walk away with your questions answered, inspired to tackle any problems you brought in and improve your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Your doctor could say goodbye with the sense of having helped one more person toward health.

Does this sound like a dream? If so, we’re here to tell you that it’s possible. Being organized and prepared can help you and your doctor or other healthcare provider make the most of appointments.

The tips below can be used for any type of appointment—general checkup, specialist, or if you are going in because you don’t feel well.

Define your goals

Are you seeking a new doctor for general care? Looking for help with a condition you’ve had for years or something that just cropped up? Hoping to find a specialist or family doctor?

Think about what you need, in the moment and in general.

For example, if you have sudden pain in your jaw, you may need a video visit right away to ask about that—and only that. If your doctor isn’t available, you might call your dentist’s office.

Your goal: figure out what’s making your jaw hurt and make it stop.

If you live with migraines and want to manage them with minimal medication, that’s a bit different.

Goal: learn which lifestyle and integrative health approaches are proven to help migraines, pick a couple to try, and keep track of how the new approach makes you feel. An example is to ask about some of the new electromagnetic drugless approaches to migraine treatment that have just been FDA-approved.

Maybe you’re interested in whole-person health. If you’re finding a new doctor, look at the physician’s bio to see what their focus is. Tell prospective providers up front, at the start of your appointment, that you’re interested in whole-person health, integrative, and preventive care.

Goal: Ensure that you and your physician are on the same page about your preferences for managing your health.

Embrace your team

For any condition lasting longer than a few weeks, you likely need ongoing care provided by a team. For example, if you have type 1 diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, you may see your family doctor, a diabetes educator, a nutritionist, a foot care specialist, and an eye doctor, because these conditions affect many different systems.

But even a "family doctor” care takes a team approach now. In the past few months, you may have:

  • Emailed your healthcare provider’s billing office about the cost of a test or shot.
  • Talked to a medical assistant or advice nurse about symptoms such as a cough.
  • Gotten an email from your doctor about a picture you sent in, or a video visit.
  • Seen your doctor, a nurse, and a lab technician at an in-person appointment.
  • Talked to your pharmacist about how a new medication works.

We love the image of the old-fashioned family doctor, a solo practitioner who solves every problem in the space of a TV show. But Marcus Welby, M.D., Dr. McDreamy, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, have done healthcare providers a disservice. It takes a village to provide mind-body-spirit care. You might want to count your online yoga instructor, your psychologist, or spiritual leader as part of your healthcare “team.”

Prepare for your visits

You’ve heard it a million times. Write down your questions. Make a list of all the medications you take and bring it to the doctor with you.

Those are great ideas. But they backfire when you bring a list of 20 questions to your annual physical or an appointment for allergy shots (because why not talk about your lower back pain while you’re here, right?) Before a visit, prioritize your questions with those that are essential for you. Try to keep the number to three or fewer.

Do your homework—but not too much

Some questions can be answered from the internet and allow you to focus the time you have with your doctor more effectively. So do your homework before you come. But don’t become “Dr. Google.” Don’t think that you have all the answers from an internet search or podcast. Much information on the internet is wrong or just does not apply to you and could throw you off target.

Focus on getting information from reliable and evidence-based sources. Many top medical schools and research centers—such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard School of Public Health, and the National Institutes of Health—have great public websites with credible, up-to-date information. Stick to those before you go.

Use a “don’t forget” list

The best list isn’t for your doctor—it’s for you. Keep a list of everything you take, daily or just sometimes: vitamins, supplements, prescription and non-prescription medicines. Jot down your allergies. If there’s something big in your family medical history, like your mom’s ulcers or your dad’s heart condition, note that down too. When the medical assistant reviews all this with you, use your list to make sure they get it into the computer—where your doctor will always have access to the information, whether you’re there or not.

Be realistic about time

Doctor’s appointments are scheduled to last a specific length of time. This is determined by what you say when you make the appointment. For example, the time frame for a new patient with a single specific concern is 15-30 minutes, with an average of 20 minutes spent with the doctor.

If it takes you five minutes to explain a problem to your doctor, at least five minutes for them to examine you, and five minutes for them to talk about the diagnosis, that leaves you both just five minutes to wrap things up, make a treatment plan, and make sure you understand everything.

If you’ve seen the doctor before, your visit will be shorter. Be aware that you are scheduled for about 10 minutes with the actual doctor if you come in for a specific concern. But don’t forget the team! You’ll have time with the medical assistant or nurse before seeing your main healthcare provider.

Make the most of this time, because what you say is going into your medical record and the doctor will see and use the information. Avoid “saving” or withholding information until the doctor comes in, because then they’ll be hearing something they didn’t expect (they do review your information before they come in the door).

To make the most of your time and your doctor’s, we suggest:

  • Keeping questions on topic: If you’re coming in for a sore throat, don’t ask questions about your back. Make a separate appointment if your back is a concern.
  • Bringing clear notes about your current problem: Use your “don’t forget list” to jot down what, when, how long, and your main symptoms. Keep it short and focused.
  • Typing your notes: Much easier (and quicker) to read. Plus, you can keep a copy and give one to your doctor.

Take your health into your own hands

The best way to make the most of your healthcare is to take over as team captain. Think about your wishes, any health conditions you have, and how you like to get care. Are you a “get in, get out, get it done” person? Or do you want to spend time working with a therapist, nutritionist, or other provider regularly?

Feeling in charge of your healthcare is a big step towards mind-body-spirit health and wellness.

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