Before a doctor appointment, you probably think of the things you want to talk about.
In the shower, you remember that you should ask about those itchy bumps on your scalp. Or grocery shopping reminds you of a question about blood pressure. But then you're there, sitting on the exam table with minutes of your doctor's time, and you draw a blank.
"It's difficult to recall symptoms or questions at a doctor visit because you're nervous," and that anxiety can mess with your memory, says Martine Ehrenclou, author of The Take-Charge Patient: How You Can Get The Best Medical Care.
You're not alone if you squander your chance to pipe up. The average person asks five or less questions per doctor visit, says Sherrie H. Kaplan, MPH, PhD, co-director of the Health Policy Research Institute at the University of California School of Medicine in Irvine. And men are more close-lipped than women. They average zero questions per visit, she says. If it's any consolation, "doctors are no better at it when they are patients."
The more you participate in your doctor visits, though, the more you'll get out of them.
"A good doctor-patient relationship isn't just nice to have," Kaplan says. "We've learned from studies that patients who participate more in treatment decisions have better health outcomes."
These tips can help you speak up and have better visits.
Before-Visit Prep Tips
Unless you enjoy pop quizzes, prepare for your doctor visit in advance. Plan to bring with you:
- Copies of medical records, if this is your first visit
- Medications, vitamins, and supplements you're taking, or a list of them
- Information about recent medical tests
- The names and contact information of other doctors you see
- A list of your questions
- A symptom diary
The more detailed you can make your symptom diary, the better. For instance, if you have stomachaches, Ehrenclou says, keep track of "when they began, when you notice them most, what makes them better or worse, if they coincided with an illness or new medication, and what you think may be causing them. Try to track them on a daily basis, or as best you can."
Try these tips just before your visit:
- Pick your top questions. You have a list of things you want to cover. Your doctor does, too. Chances are, you may not be able to cover all your questions in one visit. So pick the three or four concerns that are most important to you.
- Rehearse at home. If it helps, practice giving your medical history out loud. Expect typical questions, like: What was the date of your last menstrual period? "Women always get that question from their ob/gyn doctor, and they're almost never prepared with the answer," Kaplan says.
Preparing not only saves precious time with your doctor -- it also sets the tone for the visit. "Your doctor knows you're taking health care seriously," Ehrenclou says.
Top Doctor-Visit Tips
Here's how to get what you want out of an appointment:
- Get comfortable. If you're tense on the exam table, tell the doctor or nurse what would help you relax. If you'd like a nurse, friend, or family member there, let the doctor know.
- Be honest. Topics like sex or illegal drug use may be tough to discuss, but your doctor needs to know about them to give you the right care. Keep in mind, your doctor cannot discuss anything you tell him without your permission. Having a friend or family member there may make it easier.
- Take time. The better you're able to explain your concerns, the better your doctor can advise you about them. Stay focused, but don't rush through a symptom if giving more information could be more helpful for your doctor.
- Ask follow-up questions. If you don't understand your diagnosis or treatment, speak up. If you don't feel that you can follow through with a treatment, find out if there are other options. If you need someone who speaks your preferred language, let your doctor know.
- Take notes. Or bring along a friend or family member to take notes or ask questions.
- Find out how to keep in touch. Can you email your doctor? Or is it better to leave a phone message? Before you leave, ask for the best way to reach him if you have questions about what you've discussed.