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How To Prepare For An Appointment With A Doctor

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There is a lot to accomplish in the short amount of time generally allotted for a visit with a doctor. Studies indicate that the average time with a doctor is between 12 and 18 minutes. 

There are time tested guidelines to help prepare for an appointment with a doctor so you can maximize what happens during your limited time together. Following the guidelines may take some effort on your part. If you are not feeling up to some or all parts of the task, ask a family member or close friend to help you. Divide up the pieces if necessary.

We break the guidelines into three areas, each of which are described below:  

  • Steps to consider taking before all medical appointments
  • Steps to take when meeting a doctor for the first time
  • Steps to take before seeing a doctor you have seen before

FOR ALL MEDICAL APPOINTMENTS

  • Check your insurance plan to determine if you need the company's approval before meeting with the doctor. If prior approval is required:
    • Ask the doctor's office if it will get the approval for you. If not, follow the company's guidelines for getting the approval.
    • Check your doctor's office at least 24 hours before the appointment to be sure approval has been received. If not, you'll need to work quickly to get it sent to the doctor.
  • Compile a list of the symptoms you experienced since your last visit.  
    • The doctor needs to know:
      • A description of the symptom. For example, "pain"
      • When it started.
      • The severity of the symptom. For example, "the pain is a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being unbearable pain.:
      • When you experience it. For example, "I have pain in the morning when I first wake up, and then again about mid afternoon"
      • How long the symptom lasts. For example, "I have the pain for about an hour at a time."
      • How often you experience it.
      • What, if anything, you tried to make it better - and whether it made it better or worse. For example, "I tried aspirin, 4 times a day, but it didn't help."
      • How it affects your daily or work life. For example, "The pain is so bad that when I have it, I can't think straight enough to be able to do my work."
    • We provide a Symptoms Diary which can help you keep track of symptoms. Before you see the doctor, the push of a button turns the information into a time saving, quick-to-read, graph which you can print for the doctor.
    • For information about telling a health care professional about your symptoms, click here
  • If you work, consider how your health condition has been affecting your ability to work.  Tell the doctor at each visit, and ask that the information be noted in your medical record. This information will make it easier if you ever decide to apply for a disability income, such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or a disability income policy.
  • Consider what will be needed at the appointment. For instance:
    • Prior medical record and/or test results. If there are records or test results that the doctor needs, check ahead of time to be sure they arrived.
    • Your information, such as:
      • Contact information for your pharmacy in case a drug is prescribed or renewed.
      • If you are insured, your insurance card or i.d. number.
      • Any change in the person to contact in the event of an emergency.
      • Any changes in your documents which tell what you want to happen medically in case you become unable to speak for yourself. (For information about these documents which are known as Advance Directives, click here.)
    • Cash or a credit card in case you have to pay a co-pay.
    • If you have hearing or seeing difficulties, take appropriate aides with you (e.g. eye glasses, hearing aid with new battery).
  • Prepare a written list of your questions and concerns. Research indicates that patients who write down questions do better. 
    • Keep questions specific and brief. The doctor has limited time.
    • It doesn't matter whether the list is neatly typed or scrawled in handwriting. The more legible it is, the easier it will be for you to ask your questions quickly. You can also hand the list to the doctor. 
    • Include questions and concerns about the effect of your health condition and/or treatment on your work and daily life 
    • We provide a "Prioritizer"  that permits you to keep track of  your questions/concerns/thoughts as they occur to you. Before you go to your meeting, you can number them in order of your priority. Push a button and the Prioritizer automatically scrambles your questions/concerns/thoughts into the order you set.  You can print the reordered list and take it to the doctor. To see a Prioritizer, click here
    • NOTE: If all your questions are not answered during your meeting, ask the doctor how to make contact to ask your remaining questions and when to do it.
  • Update a list of the prescription and over-the-counter drugs, herbs, vitamins, supplements and home remedies you are taking. Include name, dosage and number of times you take it a day. 
    • You can use a mobile app such as AARP's AARP Rx which allows you to take a picture of your prescription bottles with your smart phone. The app will automatically record the drug name, dosage, pharmacy and refill schedule. You don't have to type anything.  You can download the free app by typing the followingi aarp.org/rxapp offsite linkinto your browser or on your smartphone by sending the text "aarprx" to 742864. 
    • In case it helps, we also provide a List Of Medications that you can print and take with you. 
    • If you don't have a list, take a bag full of your prescriptions with you. 
  • If you are going to ask the doctor about research you did or information you learned about, make a copy for the doctor or write down the citation where it can be found. 
    • Don't worry if the copy has your notes on it or isn't totally clean. The only question is whether it's easily readable.
    • Each document should indicate the source. For instance, if you have an article from the New England Journal Of Medicine, at least one page should show the Journal's name, the date of the issue, and page number. If not, hand write that information on the document or on a cover page.
    • If there is time, consider sending the doctor a copy of the documents ahead of time so the doctor has time to review the information before the meeting.
  • The more important the meeting, the more important it is to consider taking a friend or other person with you to act as as a patient advocate.  A patient advocate can help ask questions you don't think of or may be too embarrased to ask, and can help you remember what was said. If no one is available:
    • Contact your local disease specific non-profit organization in case they have a volunteer who can go with you. 
    • For information about patient advocates, including their role, how to choose one, and what to talk about before going to a doctor, click here. If you need to hire a professional patient advocate, click here.
  • Consider taking a recorder to record the conversation if the doctor permits.  If you have a smart phone, it likely has the ability to record. If not, basic recorders are not expensive. New inexpensive recorders even let you download content onto your computer for storage or for sharing with others via the internet. (Check the batteries ahead of time to be sure they are okay.)  Following are some of the advantages of recording the conversation: 
    • You can focus on what the doctor is saying during your meeting rather than making notes. 
    • You can review at home what was said without stress or distraction. 
    • You can stop each time you hear a word you don't know so you can look up the meaning.
    • If you have a patient advocate with you, there will be a record to resolve any disagreements about what was said during the appointment.
    • Family and friends who were not with you can listen to the conversation rather than get one view of it.  
  • Learn the medical terms for your diagnosis and symptoms. If you know the basic medical terms, it helps understand what the doctor says to you, helps save time, and makes the conversation more precise.  
  • If language is a barrier, it is worth checking to be sure translation help is available if needed. To learn how to get translation help, click here. 
  • Have stuff to keep you occupied in case there is a delay in the waiting room or exam room. 
    • If you are relaxed while you are waiting, you are likely to be more relaxed with the doctor. Our experience has been that the more relaxed we are, the better we hear and communicate. 
    • Be aware that if you are visiting a specialist, the physical condition of other patients may be unsettling. Don't think whatever happened to them will happen to you. You don't know the facts of their situation.
  • Don’t let the emotions that are likely to surface while waiting for the meeting unduly interfere with your life. To learn how, click here.

FOR AN APPOINTMENT WITH A DOCTOR YOU HAVE SEEN BEFORE

If the doctor generally orders tests during or after a visit,  consider asking that the tests be ordered ahead of the appointment. Leave yourself enough time for the doctor to get the results at least a few days before your appointment.

  • The information from the tests may prompt the doctor to look at other areas of your body, or previous areas more closely. 
  • You can review the results face-to-face, with more time for questions and answers than in a short phone call.
  • Call your doctor's office at least 24 hours before the appointment to be sure the doctor's office received the results (and film etc if necessary). If not, follow up with the lab or center where the test was performed. 

Think about whether or not you took your drugs or otherwise followed a prescribed regimen so you will be able to tell the doctor. Unless the subject comes up, the doctor will assume you have been doing what has been prescribed.

NOTE: It coudn't hurt to remind yourself of the names of the doctor's staff and what you know about them so you can personalize the experience. It's the staff that helps get you appointments in a hurry or anything else you may need that is out of the ordinary.

FOR AN APPOINTMENT WITH A DOCTOR YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN BEFORE

The more important the meeting, 

Be prepared to give the new doctor information about your health history. as well as the names and contact information of all your doctors.

  • An accurate health history is very important for getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. 
  • Do not be embarrassed or worry that the doctor may not approve of some part of your medical or social history. 
  • Consider writing your history so you can hand the doctor a time saving copy. Be sure to include a current list of your medications (name, dosage and frequency)

Ask about how the office times appointments for new patients.  Frequently offices require new patients to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to the scheduled appointment to complete paperworkIf you don't let the office know ahead of time and show up 15 minutes "late," you may find that the office gave your slot to someone else because you weren't there.

Take with you:

  • The names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all your doctors.
  • Contact information for persons to be called in case of an emergency. Include the person's mobile number. Consider including information about a second person if the first person is difficult to reach.
  • A summary of your medical history. 
  • A person to act as patient advocate if available.

To Learn More


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