A step-by-step guide from doctors to getting the most out of your next visit

Even if visits aren’t fun, they don’t have to be terrible.
Even if visits aren’t fun, they don’t have to be terrible.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Here’s the thing about going to the doctor: It’s never going to be a great time. Yet it doesn’t have to be terrible.

“One of the biggest factors in whether or not a visit is good or bad is communication,” says Matthew Zuckerman, an emergency physician at the University of Colorado. Even with a great health-care provider, a lot of people feel flustered or nervous when it comes to talking about health. And in the US, doctors’ appointments are often rushed—between just 15 and 40 minutes, including the time with medical assistants, according to Jen Kim, an internist practicing in Portland, Oregon. Kaiser Health News has reported that some doctors in hospitals have been told to see a new patient every 11 minutes. All this can make it hard for patients to feel that all of their questions and concerns have been adequately addressed.

The good news—you can prepare beforehand to communicate with your doctor effectively. Here’s a simple to-do list for your next appointment, as recounted by doctors interviewed by Quartz.

1. Get your records ready

No matter what kind of doctor you’re going to, there are some questions you’ll always get asked—including details about your previous encounters with the medical system.

“If someone comes in and says they’re taking five different medicines, but doesn’t know which ones [or the dosage], that’s hard for me,” Kim says. “I’m not psychic.”

Doctors ask about medications and supplements to make sure that nothing they prescribe could negatively interact with what you’re already taking, so it’s important to provide as much information as you can. If you’re taking a lot of medication, it may be worth writing it all down ahead of time or keeping the information on a card in your wallet. You can bring in the medications themselves.

2. Set the agenda and stick to it

Julia McDonald, a family practitioner at the Maine, says that she always starts appointments with the same question: “I have three things I want to cover, how about you?” She also makes a point to inform patients upfront of how long they have together that day, and what exams she’ll need to do.

A lot of patients find it helpful to write down a list of questions and concerns beforehand, so they don’t forget to ask about a symptom or weird mole in the heat of the moment. Once you and your doctor are on the same page, it’s important to stick to those goals throughout the appointment, and be aware of the time you’re spending on each issue so that the end of the appointment doesn’t surprise you.

Additionally, if you’re visiting a new doctor because you didn’t like some of the care you previously received, it’s important to tell your new doctor exactly what happened and how it affected you. Kim says that when she sees patients who have had bad experiences with other physicians, “I’ll go forward and address all those [concerns] sooner.”

3. Overshare

Physicians ask a lot of personal questions about your behavior, from sex practices to alcohol and drug usage. The point is to look for risk factors associated with various medical conditions, like sexually transmitted infections or infections caused by intravenous drug injections.

No matter what you say, a good physician won’t make you feel ashamed. “I’m not a cop, and I’m not a priest,” says Zuckerman. It’s strictly an informational exchange, and part of the reason doctors are bound by confidentiality is so that patients feel more comfortable disclosing parts of their lives that are medically relevant.

When discussing sexual history, the only thing health-care providers need to know about is your behavior—not how you identify sexually or the gender of your partners, which can be a lot more personal. Kim says that when she asks her patients about their sexual partners, she does it in a systematic way so that these questions are perceived as routine, rather than prying.

If you are uncomfortable with a question your doctor asks, it’s fair to ask why they’re asking before you answer. That way, you can disclose the information doctors really need to know, and keep some of your privacy.

It’s best to be blunt with your doctor and realize that you won’t be saying anything they haven’t heard before. And if your doctor does make you feel judged, remember that you have options. “If you don’t feel comfortable with your physician, you should probably consider getting a different doctor,” says Zuckerman.

4. Take good notes

When we’re emotionally preoccupied, it’s much harder (paywall) for us to digest new information. So rather than rely on memory to reconstruct what a doctor says, consider whipping out a pen and notepad during the appointment—just like you would in a meeting.

Recording your doctor is typically frowned upon because it can put a tension on the relationship, making the physician feel as if they’re not trusted. If you’re worried about missing something, which is a perfectly legitimate concern, it’s better to tell your doctor outright so that she can make more of an effort to walk you carefully through everything.

There’s also nothing wrong with bringing a loved one along, if you can. Having a third party in the room can help you articulate problems more accurately and also serve as an extra set of ears when the doctor is speaking. Doctors will always ask before reading out test results in front of anyone else in the room.

Plus, Zuckerman says, hospitals can be boring. If you’re waiting on test results, the time goes by a lot more quickly with someone else to talk to.

5. Summarize and repeat

One of the best ways you can check your understanding of something the doctor explains is to paraphrase it back. This is a useful trick in any kind of information exchange. It’s particularly helpful at the end of appointments when discussing follow-up treatment—whether it’s scheduling an appointment with a different physician or getting a prescription filled.

Summarizing a visit back to your doctor before you head out the door ensures that you’ve got all the information about your health that you need. If you’ve missed something on your agenda, now’s your time to correct it.

Ultimately, medicine is a collaboration. It takes communication on both sides to make it work.