You wait weeks or months to get in to see this expert and then arrive on time to the appointment to only wait an hour in the waiting room, or if you’re lucky, the exam room and then the doctor breezes in and tries to get you out as quickly as possible because she/he is already behind in their day. The doctor’s, obvious impatience has you flustered and you leave out half of your symptoms and any question you might be afraid to ask to this intimidating, uber-educated professional who speaks in big words and seems a little annoyed that you are taking up his/her time.
Having had contact with doctors and medical professionals more than 300 days of the last 1.5 years, I’ve gotten better at figuring out how to best use that precious time with the experts and thought I’d share some of the tips I now use for all appointments.
- Have an objective: Go into the appointment knowing if you’re looking for a diagnosis, requesting medication or have a specific question you want answered. When you see the nurse, state that objective to the nurse and then when you see the doctor, restate it.
- Have a list of questions: For the week leading up to the appointment, keep a running list of questions. Have them written down so you don’t forget them.
- Have a list of symptoms: This might seem unnecessary, but it’s really important. A doctor is playing detective, often in a fifteen minute appointment, on the human body, a very complex system. The small details that you don’t mention are often important factors.
- Explain how symptoms are different from normal: What’s normal for everyone is slightly different, so it’s important to specifically give an explanation of what’s changed. For example, I will say, “It’s normal from Owen to have some retractions in his lower abdomen when he breathes. It is not normal for him to have retracting in the ribs or chest.”
- Bring pictures and evidence: Have you ever had a symptom but by the time you see the doctor it’s not there? Pictures help doctors see, not just hear your description of what is happening. Video can be even more helpful. Owen is notorious for not coughing in front of the doctor, so I frequently tape his cough with my phone. How the cough sounds is one of the key factors in diagnosing different respiratory illnesses. Even the video that I recently showed of Owen using the Gait Trainer (walker) in PT was helpful for me to show the same therapist at our next visit. In the moment, neither of us noticed that he was picking up one foot really well and dragging his other foot. It was really clear on the video and something we were able to discuss at our next appointment.
- Use the time with the nurse wisely: Often, the nurse and doctor talk to each other between their visits. This conversation helps the doctor prepare for the appointment and it’s your best way to make sure the doctor hears your concerns twice; from the nurse and then from you. I sometimes ask the nurse, “would you like a list of the questions and symptoms that I’ve brought?”
- Bring a list of all medications, ointments, lotions and vitamins that you use. Make sure you capture these three items 1) how many mg/mL 2) the dosage given and 3) how many times per day it’s given. You can take pictures of the package or bring the package with if you’re not sure what information they will need.
- If you don’t understand their language keep asking questions until you do. And then repeat back it back to them in your own language.
- If it’s a really important visit, bring someone with you. This person may think of questions you aren’t thinking of and having two people helps remember important details better. If you can’t bring someone with, ask the doctor if you can record the conversation for your own better understanding. Also, some doctors will send a copy of their transcriptions to you, ask for it, if you don’t know.
- Don’t be afraid to say “this is a big deal to me” Inherently, most doctors are good people and they want to give you good care. If they are not giving you the care that you hoped, it’s appropriate to call it to their attention in a non-threatening way. They may have just come from an appointment where they had to give terrible news or were dealing with an immediate medical emergency, so in their big picture, your problem may not be the biggest – but if you remind them that in your big picture it is, they will often soften and slow down.