How To Get The Most Out of Your Doctor’s Visit

Dr. Nina Radcliff

No Time to Dilly-Dally!

A doctor’s visit is usually 15 minutes or less. During that time, your physician needs to attain a history of your symptoms, perform a physical exam, prescribe a treatment, and answer your questions. That leaves little time to dilly-dally. As a patient, here are some keys to optimize that time and have a meaningful exchange. 

  • Do some research. Before your appointment, look up information about your symptoms as well as possible diagnoses and treatments. This can allow you to have an informed and productive discussion with your doctor and create a list of questions that you would like answered.
  • Refocus your doctor. We all have bad days. Your doctor may have had to admit a patient to the hospital or inform someone for the first time that they have cancer. If your doctor appears distracted or rushed, acknowledge it in a non-confrontational manner such as “It seems like you’re having a very busy day.”
  • Focus on one issue at a time. It is often difficult for doctors to discuss multiple medical issues without falling behind and keeping other patients waiting. Plan to address one issue at a time, and consider limiting it to 1-3 issues (starting with the most important). If you have more issues, when you are scheduling your appointment let the receptionist know that you may need more time. If not, schedule another visit.
  • Stick with the program. True story: “My back pain started when I picked up my cousin Jeff and his wife from the airport. I had not seen them in 3 years….no maybe 4 years. Anyways, this is his 2nd marriage. His first wife said he worked too much. This wife is a little younger and she will probably leave him too. Their flight was late so we ordered pizza for dinner because I did not feel like cooking and doing the dishes that night…” There goes 1-2 wasted minutes. The patient provided little information that could lead to a diagnosis and get him better. An alternative approach could be: “I started having back pain 2 weeks ago after lifting some luggage. The pain started immediately and is an aching feeling in the lower back and an electric pain that shoots down my right buttocks. It has not gotten better after 2 weeks of ibuprofen.”
  • Answer “checklist” questions. Based upon your chief (main) complaint, your doctor creates a “differential diagnosis” or a likely list of potential diagnoses. Although it may seem business-like, your doctor has been trained to ask checklist type questions in order to steer through and sort the information.
  • Avoid being dramatic, if possible. You are more likely to be taken seriously when you appear levelheaded. Although being ill can be painful and uncomfortable, a patient who yells and cries “My pain is so bad I am going to kill myself if you don’t do something. Help me!” is less likely to be taken seriously (even if it is true). An alternative is “The pain is severe and unbearable. I cannot sit, sleep, or go to work. I really need you to figure this out.”
  • Ensure that your questions are answered. This is where a list helps. Additionally, before leaving you should clearly understand what your diagnosis is. If your doctor is not certain, you should be clear on what the likely causes are and what steps will be done to determine this.
  • Bring a family member or friend. They can help ask questions, remember what happened or write things down. Afterall, two heads are better than one and four ears are better than two.
  • Do your part. Your doctor is not a magician and getting or staying healthy is a 2-way relationship. For example a diabetic may be asked to keep a log of their blood sugars, take their medications as prescribed, eat healthy, and exercise. By following your doctor’s medical advice, you are demonstrating that you are committed to getting better (and it is more likely that you will).

Studies have shown that 80% of diagnoses can be made based on a patient’s history alone. By being informed and staying focused, you can help your doctor navigate through a maze, especially when the diagnosis is ambiguous. Afterall, you know your body better than anyone else does and you are the key to facilitating your doctor’s diagnosis and treatment.

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