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How to get the most out of your visit to the doctor

Dr. Dennis Rosen
Dr. Dennis Rosen

Doctors’ visits are stressful. No one goes to see a physician for the fun of it: We go because we are concerned about our health (or that of our loved ones) and we want either reassurance or treatment to restore it.

Unfortunately, because of stress, discomfort, or the effects of medication that we’re already taking, it can be difficult to get what we need from our doctors in the frustratingly short time we spend with them during our appointments. Not only is this dissatisfying, it can be dangerous as well. Misunderstandings about what we should be doing and when as far as treatments and medicines are concerned can lead not only to our not getting better, but also pose serious health risks of their own.

Here are some strategies you can use to prevent these risks and get the most out of your next doctor’s visit:

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Before the visit

 Prepare a written agenda for the appointment, ideally the night before. This should include a list of specific health questions you need to address at the visit (the swelling in your ankle, or the increasing shortness of breath that’s been happening more frequently). It should also include other concerns or needs you have (getting the flu shot, refills for prescriptions, forms you need for work or school), as well as general health questions you’d like answered. Bring two copies of the agenda to the appointment, one for you and one to hand to your physician at the beginning of your visit, so the visit can stay focused on your needs.

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During the visit

 Be direct, and upfront about your concerns, with the most important issue that you have going first. Don’t expect your doctor to guess what’s brought you in to see him. And if you leave your main concern for last, whether because of embarrassment or because you’ve been allowing your doctor to dictate the course of the visit, it is likely not to receive the attention it merits. This can lead to misunderstandings on both sides, and delays in treatment.

 Take notes during your visit, or better yet, have someone else take notes for you. Writing down the information and instructions you receive serves many important purposes. It allows you a reference source to return to later if you’re not clear as to what exactly you’ve been instructed to do (take medicine X every six hours and medicine Y every eight).

It also slows down what can often be a rapid-fire delivery of unfamiliar terms interspersed with jargon that’s difficult to fire. Finally, it allows you to sense in real time whether or not you understand what you’re hearing. If you are unable to summarize what your doctor is telling you, there’s a good chance you haven’t understood it, and this is a great prompt to ask for clarifications.

 Bring a printed list of all medications you are taking (along with their doses) to your visit. The list should contain the names of medications or other substances you are allergic to or have responded badly to, so that if a new medication needs to be prescribed, there is less likelihood of an adverse response. In general, it is a good idea to keep this list on your person at all times, as it is not always possible to predict when it might be needed, especially in an emergency situation.

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 Before leaving the office, review your notes with your doctor and make sure you’ve clearly understood all of the instructions you’ve been given, from medication doses and schedules to testing, vaccinations, and other appointments you need to make. Likewise, make sure you understand under what circumstances you should seek further medical help, whether because the treatment isn’t working, or because of side effects that have arisen from the medications you’ve been given.

Dr. Dennis Rosen is a pediatric pulmonologist practicing in Boston, and the author of a new book, “Vital Conversations: Improving Communication Between Doctors And Patients.”