I frequently get questions from my relatives, friends and other people I know regarding a friend, themselves, a relative or someone close that they may know regarding what their doctor may have told them, and or what may have transpired at their doctor visit. In these situations it’s very difficult for me to provide helpful answers as patients may misinterpret what was said to them, language may have been used that the patient didn’t understand or they may forget altogether what was told to them. Here are some helpful tips I would like to give to help when going to your next doctor’s visit to make it more productive and rewarding.

1. Take notes.

When going to the doctor’s office one should always be prepared to take notes. It is important to capture as much of the visit as possible. Whether it be on paper or some device that you may be able to review later. Key things to note would be the following. First, the diagnosis that your physician has provided – this is simply “what it is you have.” The name of the condition that is more than likely sending you to see the doctor in the first place.  By doing this you start the road to discovery and understanding of your own health. Additionally this can aid you in doing your own research, seeking out support groups, and/or potentially finding alternative ways to treat the condition or learn how the condition may affect your life (prognosis). A second thing to note would be the “plan of action.” Stated in other words “so now that you have been diagnosed with condition X, what is the treatment or management of such?” By having this written down you can refer to it later. If you plan to record on an electronic device, be sure to ask permission first as such is illegal in some states without permission.

2. Ask questions.

It is imperative that you – the patient – understand as much as possible about your health as anyone because you are your biggest advocate. Furthermore, it is difficult to help yourself if you don’t have a good understanding of what you have. In this manner, remember what my high school American History teacher told me – “There are no stupid questions, just stupid people.” His point was don’t be afraid to ask questions because in doing such you gain knowledge and understanding, thereby improving your opportunity to be as intelligent as possible. Stated differently – knowledge is power. By being an informed patient you will be equipped to make better decisions regarding your health as well as prepared to participate in the team management of your care with your physician and other healthcare providers. Questions such as “What does this [diagnosis/condition] mean?” “How is it treated?” “What are the side effects of treatment?” “What will happen if I don’t have surgery [or treatment]?” “Will I still be able to do my normal activities?” Ask, whatever questions you may have. Feel as if nothing is off limits, because after all this is your health, your life.

3. Take a partner.

Given that certain conditions can elicit a myriad of emotions (i.e. learning that you have been recently been diagnosed with cancer or some other major illness), comprehension and remembering what was discussed during the doctor visit can be difficult. Some studies report that sometimes patients can only recall approximately 50% of what was told to them during their visit with their physician. By having a spouse, relative, friend, loved-one, neighbor, etc there at the visit, the chances of being able to retain such information can be improved. Furthermore, the partner can aid in performing the other previously mentioned tips of taking notes and asking questions.

4. Recite in your own words what the doctor has told you.

Communication is a two way street.  Some studies have shown that we physicians are often guilty of talking too much during a visit with a patient. A key aspect of a visit with your physician would be you reciting back to your physician what he/she has told you. “So Dr. Noble, what you’re telling me is that I have gallstones and you’re recommending that I have surgery to treat this?” By doing this several things happen. First, your physician obtains an understanding of what you have learned/know about your condition. Secondly, you, the patient, affirm your position as being an active participant in your healthcare. Additionally, further discussions can be held as to next steps, treatment alternatives, etc.

5. Request an after visit summary.

This is a written (or printed summary) of the visit. Key elements of this could be: the diagnosis, hopefully with a layman’s definition of it; the treatment plan, including any medications that may have been prescribed, stopped, or refilled; signs or symptoms that would require medical attention or notifying a physician; and when to follow-up or come back to the doctor’s office. This helpful piece of paper concisely summarizes pretty much those 5W’s and H of the medical care you received.

“Who” did you see (name of your physician)? “Why” did you see your physician (diagnosis/conditions being treated)? “What” did your physician do (particularly if you had a procedure done)? “When” did you see your physician, as well as “When” should you return for follow-up? “Where” did you see your physician or “Where” was the procedure performed (the address or contact information of the clinic will usually be provided in case you may need to contact them or request additional information)? “How” will your condition be treated and/or managed (treatment plan)?

In summary, going to the doctor’s office should be an experience in which the patient leaves better than the way they presented. Whether “better” involves receiving treatment or not, all patients should leave with a better understanding of their condition and their health than what they did when they first walked through the door. To facilitate such, patients should follow a few tips in making their visit with their physician a beneficial one. By taking notes, having someone else join you, asking questions, restating what was told to you and requesting a summary of the visit – your next doctor appointment should be an effective one.

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