UW News

December 10, 2009

15 minutes with your doctor: Make the time worthwhile

Remember the last time you saw your primary-care doctor? Do you also recall whether you walked out of the clinic fully understanding the diagnosis and, if the doctor prescribed medication, how it was supposed to help?

With health care access in the news, it is useful to examine how to get the most value from a doctor’s visit. Physicians are responsible for providing the care, but patients who make good use of those 15 to 20 minutes position themselves for better results.

Making your appointment: If you have more than one health issue to discuss, tell the scheduler. Some clinics can offer extended exams — ask if one is available. If not, prioritize the issues in your mind. Even if you do not have time to discuss them all at one visit, list them upfront when your appointment starts, because the doctor might hear something that raises a red flag and prioritize them differently.

Before the appointment: Take a few minutes to consider your health and make some mental or written notes. Any changes since the last time you saw a doctor? No need to account for every ache and cold, but note persistent illnesses or significant differences in how you feel.

If you currently take medication, write down names and dosages. On that same list include any supplements — over-the-counter or homeopathic. This is important because many seemingly benign supplements can create a negative reaction when taken with prescribed medications.

If you prefer, bring your medications and supplements with you, so the clinical team can note them.

Day of appointment: First, try to arrive ahead of time. When appointments start late, patients can feel like they are held to a higher standard for timeliness. But physicians often run behind because they have accommodated another patient who arrived late, creating a domino effect. If you will arrive more than 10 minutes late, consider making a new appointment.

Be fully engaged: Briefly explain your symptoms instead of accounting for every chronic ailment, which can cloud the acute condition that brings you to the clinic. Feel free to mention your specific concerns, but resist the urge to diagnose yourself. Be honest. Don’t hold back information out of potential embarrassment. We know that privacy is your expectation and our obligation.

Note-taking: Some patients forget what the doctor said by the time they reach the parking lot. If your memory fails now and again — as is the case with many baby boomers — take a few notes. (Your clinic likely can provide pen and paper, if you need.) Ask for a printout of instructions for therapy or medication. If your medical history is complex, or English is not your first language, bring along a family member or friend who can help communicate important details.

You should understand all of the instructions from your physician. If in doubt, please ask questions.

Meeting a new doctor: How do you find out whether an unfamiliar doctor is a good fit for you? Ideally the first meeting happens at an “establish care” appointment, when you feel well, and we can talk about your health history without having to focus on an acute issue.

Practically, though, most first conversations happen during an appointment for an illness. (Ask your scheduler if an extended exam window is available.)

Feel free to ask about your doctor’s medical training, experience with a chronic illness, attitude toward medication and openness to non-Western therapies, a topic of interest in the Puget Sound area. It is also appropriate to ask about your doctor’s approach to particular disorders and to gay and lesbian sexual orientations.

A patient’s appointment with a doctor is precious time. Our goal as physicians is to make you feel better. Making the most of your visit can help us help you.