Your doctor may conduct four or five office visits every hour, which gives you a maximum of 15 minutes (if you’re lucky) to speak with him. Despite the fact that studies link longer appointment times to better patient health, insurance regulations, hospital policies and other restrictions keep a cap on your face-to-face time with your doctor, especially for routine appointments. Since there’s not much you can do about the amount of time allotted for your visit, resolve to make the most of your appointment slot instead.
Clarify the Purpose(s)
When you call, let the scheduler know why you’d like to see your doctor. The office might allot different blocks of time for well visits and sick visits, for example. If you’re clear about the purpose of your visit, the front desk can do a better job of reserving an appointment time of the appropriate length.
Additionally, you may need extra time if you have multiple concerns to discuss with your provider. Although appointment lengths are sometimes mandated by hospital policies, the office might be able to set aside a longer amount of time if they understand that you’ll be coming in with a number of issues to discuss. Before setting up your appointment, make a list of your concerns so that you’ll remember to share them when calling to schedule.
And don’t “hide” any issues under a blanket of one or two concerns. Speak up so the scheduler knows you need to talk about different things and the doctor can prepare. If she comes in expecting to talk about your kidney pain but doesn’t know about your frequent headaches, you’ll waste time on a tangent she wasn’t expecting. Be upfront about why you need a doctor’s appointment, even if your symptoms seem unrelated.
Hold onto that list of concerns. You’re going to need it when you go to your appointment. If you come with a checklist in hand, you can go through your issues one by one as you speak with the medical staff. Otherwise, you may get home and realize that you forgot to bring up an important point.
In fact, it’s a good idea to bring a full list of notes with you. You may need to include:
- Your health history, especially if this is a new provider or you haven’t been in a while
- Medical history for your immediate family (parents, siblings, etc.), noting any specific problems or concerns that run in your family
- A current list of prescriptions, OTC medications and supplements you’re taking
- Info about any other care you’re receiving from different providers
- An outline of your specific symptoms and when they started
- Any questions you want to ask your doctor
You may need to call the office ahead of your appointment to see whether there’s anything special that they need you to bring or do. If this is an annual physical or wellness screening, you may be asked to fast (stop eating) ahead of time so the office can draw blood for routine testing. Being prepared could help you avoid future visits to come back in for lab work or other necessary tests related to the current visit.
Ask for Answers
You may have questions about the information that your doctor gives you. Don’t hesitate to ask those during the appointment. If you’re unsure about recommended treatments, share those concerns. If you don’t understand a term or a diagnosis that your doctor rattles off, ask him to tell you more about what it means.
If you’re given instructions to complete at home, restate them to your doctor. That way, you can make sure that you’re understanding the directions correctly. As you go through them, your provider may correct any misunderstandings or provide additional tips.
Even if your doctor has already explained something to you, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you need it. It’s better to spend a few minutes making sure you understand than having to call back or make another appointment later for the same thing. Sometimes, hearing the information once more or having it presented in a different way can help you process it. For example, your doctor might be able to sketch you a diagram or show you a pamphlet. Remember: Your doctor wants to help you. It’s good to ask questions.
Even if you ask for clarification and repeat instructions back to the doctor, there’s a good chance that you’ll soon forget much of what you heard. To help you remember everything from your appointment, take notes as you go. Use whatever notetaking device is quickest for you, whether that’s a notebook and a pen or your phone.
Your doctor may also be able to give you a brochure that offers details about your condition or treatment. You can take this printed material home with you to learn more. This shouldn’t preclude you from taking your own notes, but it can be a valuable supplement.
One thing you should always be sure to write down is contact information in case you need to follow up. For example, you might need to know which department to call for scheduling a test or what number you should use for after-hours emergencies. Information-gathering might not sound like the best use of your time, but it’ll help you understand what’s going on so you spend less time later calling back or making additional appointments.
Having a friend or family member with you for support can be a big help, not only for moral or emotional backup but for understanding. Your spouse, for example, can share his or her own observations about your symptoms and can help you remember to list all of your concerns. Another person may also ask good questions that you wouldn’t have thought of. Plus, two people are better than one at taking notes, so enlist some help in keeping track of information, especially for appointments for follow-up care or a newly diagnosed chronic condition.
Afterward, you can debrief with your helper to ensure that you both have the same understanding of what the doctor told you. One might remember an important piece of information that the other has forgotten.
Office visits are the best opportunities you have for speaking to your doctor. By preparing ahead of time and leaving with as much information as possible, you can make the most of your time, even if it’s only 11 minutes.