How to Work with Your Doctor

Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on November 08, 2020
photo of doctor and mature patient

Doctors are very busy people. And you probably have a lot of things on your plate as well. So you want to make sure you make the most of the limited time you might have at an appointment.

It could be a regular checkup, a physical exam, an emergency, or a follow-up. Whatever the reason, you and your doctor save time and have a better visit if you come prepared.

Get Organized Before Your Appointment

Prioritize. Ask yourself what are the most important things you want to talk over with your doctor. Make a list, and put the biggest issues at the top. Your time with the doctor may be short, so make sure you get to your top concerns first.

List your medications. Write down their names, doses, and how often you take them. It might be easier to bring the bottles with you. This includes your prescription drugs, over-the-counter products, vitamins, and supplements.

Review your health history. If you haven’t seen this doctor before, they will want to know about your current health, such as illnesses and previous surgeries. You might want to bring X-rays and scans if you have them and are related to your visit.

Be familiar with your family’s health history. This could be key, because genes often play a role in diseases.

Consider bringing help. It may be helpful to have a friend or family member come with you. It’s good to have a second set of ears when there’s lots of medical information coming at you. This could be especially helpful for older people.

Bring your medical insurance card. Also, read up on what your plan covers.

Arrive early if it’s your first visit to this doctor. You’ll probably have a lot of forms to fill out. Some offices might let you do that at home.

How To Talk To Your Doctor

You get better results when you and your doctor are listening and talking well with each other. 

Talk over your symptoms and concerns. Be as clear as possible, because this helps your doctor figure out what could be bothering you. This is also a good chance to ask questions, starting with the top issues first.

Be honest about how you feel and your habits. You probably want to say you exercise every day or that you’ve quit smoking, because that’s what you intend to do. But if it’s still really an “I should” instead of an “I do,” that’s OK – just say so. Your doctor is there to help you, not judge you.

Tell them what they need to know even if it involves sensitive subjects such as memory loss or going to the bathroom. Doctors have heard it all before. They are used to talking about all sorts of bodily functions.

Likewise, try to open up about your feelings. If you’ve felt down for a while, or are anxious or stressed, that’s part of your health, too.

Listen and Learn

Be a good listener. It’s not about just asking questions but making sure you understand the answers. You need to understand what the doctor says about your next steps.

They could suggest a treatment, a new drug, more tests or nothing at all. Make sure you leave understanding your condition and their plan for you.

Some other suggestions:

Take notes. If there’s a lot of information, it’s helpful to jot down key points. If you have someone with you, they could help with that.

Speak up if you’re confused. Sometimes, doctors speak in jargon and use technical words. So keep asking until you understand. If you don’t ask, your doctor may assume you get it.

Know your options. If the next steps include treatments, medication, or tests, make sure you have those straight in your mind. Let your doctor know when you have concerns.

Follow through. Schedule any future appointments, tests, or procedures. If they prescribed medication, make sure you pick it up. Call to get results of any tests you’ve taken if you don’t hear back.

How To Help an Older Relative

Going with a parent or an aging relative to an appointment can be helpful and comforting to them. It’s important to understand how you can support them.

Have a conversation about what they’d like you to do before you go. For instance, do they want you to help ask questions and take notes?

Figure out what concerns they want to bring up. If they forget during the visit, you can bring it up. Be careful not to take too strong of a role. The appointment is, after all, between your loved one and the doctor.

Be Ready for an Emergency

You never know when one might strike, so it pays to have key information ready to go. You could store this in a smartphone, laptop, or a piece of paper. You should have these things handy:

  • Basic information, including name, age, sex, and contact info
  • Emergency contacts and the number and email of your doctor’s office
  • List of medications, doses, and how often they are taken (same with supplements such as vitamins or fish oil)
  • Medical conditions, such as allergies, heart disease, and diabetes
  • Medical equipment, such as hearing aids and canes
  • Your insurance card

Show Sources


New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services: “Preparing for a Doctor’s Appointment.”

National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health: “How should I prepare? Getting ready for an appointment,” “A Guide for Older People: Talking with your doctor,” “A Guide for Older People: How Can I Be Involved? Making Decisions With Your Doctor,” “A Guide for Older People: How Should I Prepare? Getting Ready for an Appointment,” “A Guide for Older People: Who Else Will Help? Involving your Family and Friends.”

Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs: “Reminder sheet for a Doctor Visit.”

American Medical Association: “Family Medical History.”

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: “Before Your Appointment,” “Questions to Ask Your Doctor,” “During Your Appointment,” “Next Steps After Your Diagnosis,” “After Your Appointment.”

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