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Illness prevention and treatment

April 07, 2015

How to make the most of your doctor’s visit

Your doctor is increasingly pressed for time — and so are you. Here’s how you can use your next appointment wisely.

Vancouver general practitioner (GP) Dr. Susan Biali likes it when patients come prepared for their appointments. These are the ones who know what medication they’re taking, who bring key medical information and who are able to zero in on the biggest medical areas of concern.

“Some patients like to launch into a story without explaining what it’s about,” says Biali, who is also a life coach and the author of Live a Life You Love, adding she’d prefer a sentence summarizing just what it is they’re concerned about. She says that one-sentence synopsis can help her determine what questions to ask and to use the visit as most efficiently as possible: “We need all the facts that are relevant.”

Biali suggests writing down a list of medical concerns ahead of your visit with your family doctor and handing it over right away. “Let the doctor triage,” she recommends.

It’s advice that Patrick Conlon, a Toronto journalist and the author of The Essential Hospital Handbook: How to Be an Effective Partner in a Loved One’s Care, takes to heart. He suggests you start writing down your symptoms in a calendar format, giving your doctor an instant summary of when a medical issue began and how it has progressed, “so you can use the time with the GP as efficiently as possible.”

Here’s how to prepare for your next visit to the doctor:

  • Ask for more time if required. If you need a longer visit, ask the receptionist for one when you’re making your appointment. Biali says that if you explain what your medical concern is — and that you need a longer visit — your wish may be accommodated.

  • Skip Dr. Google. Forgo sharing a self-diagnosis gleaned from the Internet. “All it does is raise anxiety,” says Conlon, and doesn’t allow the GP to assess your condition objectively.

  • Get past “white coat syndrome.” The first step, Conlon says, is overcoming the feeling of being intimidated by a physician. “It turns a lot of us into babbling idiots,” he says. Take a deep breath and remember: Doctors are humans, too.

  • Keep a file of key medical documents. Biali says recent blood work results, hospital reports and vaccination records can all be very helpful in painting a picture for your GP, as well as reducing the need for additional tests that can delay a diagnosis. Your doctor may not have a record of any visits to the emergency department; if you’ve been handed a report when released from the hospital or have access to your hospital files online — print and bring them.

  • Ask someone to come along. If you’re having alarming symptoms and have an anxiety-filled visit ahead of you, bring a friend, says Conlon. That person can act as an emotional support, ask questions you didn’t think of, listen to and remember the doctor’s instructions (which many patients tune out when stressed), and take notes. But don’t bring too many people into the room, and do let your teenaged children go in alone (with a note from you, if necessary).

  • Determine what issue is most important to you, and focus on it. Bringing a laundry list of concerns can waste time that could be spent addressing something serious, says Biali.

  • Ask for clarification. If you don’t understand something your doctor is saying, ask for clarification, advises Conlon.

  • Give prompts and reminders. Your doctor sees many patients every day. If you’re allergic to penicillin and your doctor is writing out a prescription for it, put up your hand. Conlon says mentioning to a doctor what drugs haven’t worked for you in the past can also save time and ensure you receive a new drug that works. And if you haven’t heard anything from the specialist your doctor has referred you to, get the number from your GP’s office and follow up.

  • Record everything. If a friend can’t accompany you or you have trouble remembering instructions, your phone can help. Ask your doctor if you can record his or her suggestions with your cell phone’s voice recorder.

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