Tips for a Successful Doctor Visit

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on January 27, 2020
4 min read

No matter how much you love your doctor, it’s likely that once you don that gaping gown and hop on the exam table, you hope for a visit that’s as quick and easy as possible.

Though some things like wait times and exam wear may be out of your control, there are a few things you can do to help your time at the doc go smoothly.

Set yourself up for success early in the game: Be clear about why you’re coming and what will happen at the visit. It starts when you call to make your appointment.

“In a doctor's mind, there's a very significant difference between a well visit, which is preventative, and a problem visit,” says Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, MD, the family medicine residency program director at the Duke Department of Community and Family Medicine.

Not only are the two billed differently (depending on your insurance, a well visit may be free, while a problem visit typically comes with a co-pay), but they also take up different amounts of your doctor’s schedule.

When you call the scheduler, ask:

  • How much time will the doctor have to see me?
  • Should I not eat or drink before I come?
  • Am I due for lab work? 

“If you call and tell the receptionist you have a sore throat, usually you're going to be in a 10-15-minute time slot,” says John Meigs Jr., MD, board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “But if you come in with 14 other complaints, you’ll leave feeling like you didn’t get everything out of me that you came for, and we’ll both leave frustrated.”

You’re the expert on you. But your doctor is also an expert -- one who trained for many years in medicine. Be an advocate for yourself, but also listen.

“People sometimes want to give you their diagnosis instead of their symptoms,” Meigs says.

It’s OK to clarify and raise concerns you have, but demanding certain tests or medicines may hold up treatments that could really help you.

“It’s give and take,” says Russ Blackwelder, MD, assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Don't dominate your visits, and don't let your physician dominate your visits.”

He says if you don’t feel like you’re an active part of your visits, that may be a sign you need a different doctor.

“If your provider is doing all the talking, then just prescribing medicine without taking time to listen, that’s a red flag.”

Don't be afraid to make a change and see someone who’s a better fit for you. 

Does diabetes run in your family? How about high blood pressure? Rheumatoid arthritis? Other chronic conditions? If you don’t know, it’s time to ask around.

It’s most important to know the health histories of your direct family members, but grandparents and others may also come into play, Martinez-Bianchi says. Ask your doctor for a list of conditions to research in your family’s past, then write down the answers and bring them with you to your visit.

If your family tends to be private about its health, you may have to have a few awkward conversations. If they’re more open, start paying attention.

“Some families get together for Thanksgiving dinner and everybody talks about their medical problems over turkey,” Meigs says. If that’s the case, take notes -- it’s for your health!

Your doctor needs to know which medications you’re taking, including any over-the-counter meds and supplements. It'll help uncover possible interactions or side effects, and a snapshot of the types of treatments you’ve already got going in your system. And your best guess won’t cut it.

“Don't just tell me you take the little blue pill and the little white pill,” Meigs says. His tip: Bring your medications with you to your appointment.

Don’t want to tote a bag full of pills in public? Take a picture of your prescription bottles with your smartphone. That way, your doctor will have all the info they need in a quick glance, including dosage and whether you’re due for a refill.

Honesty is the best policy, and there’s nowhere that’s truer than with your doctor.

“When the exam room door closes, we want to know people as they really are,” Blackwelder says. In order for that to happen, you have to let go of any awkwardness you feel and tell your doctor your whole health story.

“Trust me, whatever you tell me, I've heard worse,” Meigs says. “People are people. I'm just here to help.”

Opening up about symptoms and conditions can be hard for some cultures or after certain experiences, Martinez-Bianchi says. But it’s an important -- sometimes life-saving -- barrier to push past.

“I’ve had [folks] who knew they had HIV but didn't tell me, and so years of treatment were lost. HIV is a controllable condition, not a death sentence -- but only if you get the appropriate treatment.”

Bottom line: A good doctor will never think less of you because of the conditions you have. Being up front will help you get the care you need and deserve.

“We became physicians because we want to help,” Blackwelder says. “Don't be afraid to let us try.”