8 Tips to Help You Get What You Need Out of a Doctor Visit
Make the most of your next doctor's visit
Eleven seconds. That’s how long the average patient talks during a doctor’s visit before the doctor interrupts, according to a study published in 2019 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Even worse, only about 1 in 3 doctors make it possible for patients to bring up health concerns by asking questions such as “How are you?”
“It’s worrisome, especially for patients who have chronic conditions such as diabetes, because if they aren’t allowed time to discuss their concerns, their health can really be put in danger,” says Naykky Singh Ospina, MD, an endocrinologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and an author of the study.
Here’s how to make sure your voice gets heard.
1. Speak Up First.
Your doctor has barely entered the examination room and you’re already telling her you have specific issues to discuss. What may seem impolite is actually a necessity. “You want to make sure that the doctor saves enough time to go through each concern with you,” says David Lam, MD, associate director of the Mount Sinai Diabetes Center in New York City.
Leigh Culbert, who has type 1 diabetes, brings in a list of questions that she presents to her health care providers as soon as they walk through the exam room door. “This way, I make it very clear to them about what I expect out of my care,” says Culbert, a public relations executive who lives near Bethesda, Maryland. You can even send questions ahead of time, via the online patient portal, to make sure the doctor has them in advance.
2. Arrive Armed With Data.
“Every doctor’s appointment I go to, I walk in like a scout and am completely prepared,” says Nancy Murphy, RN, a registered nurse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has type 1 diabetes. Murphy uses her phone to keep a running list of questions she wants to ask her provider; whenever one pops into her head, she simply adds it to the list. If she’s had bloodwork done, she brings the results with her, and she downloads the data from her continuous glucose monitor (CGM) before each visit so she can discuss it with her doctor.
3. Be Specific.
Details will help your health care provider diagnose a problem and come up with a solution, so Murphy suggests clearly outlining the issue. Instead of saying, “I’m having trouble with my CGM,” explain that you keep getting false alarms. The same goes for aches, pains, or unusual symptoms. Keep a log, noting how you feel, when each symptom began, where you feel it, how various activities make it worse or better, and how it’s affecting you on a daily basis. That way, you’ll be able to share specifics with your health care provider.
4. Ask For Eye Contact.
It’s frustrating when you try to broach something with your doctor and she’s fixated on her tablet. This is a problem that’s becoming more common with the introduction of electronic health records. When doctors use them in their exam room, they end up spending one-third of the time staring at the screen, according to a study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Medical Informatics. It’s easier for doctors with divided attention to make some sort of mistake, says Kevin Fiscella, MD, MPH, professor of family medicine and public health sciences and associate director of the Center for Communication and Disparities Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. Not only that, but it can make you feel as if your doctor isn’t listening. If you find it difficult to talk with your provider, let her know. She can always angle the computer toward you so you can see what she’s typing, or you can sit next to one another.
5. Use the Buddy System.
If you worry that your doctor is being brusque with you or not taking your concerns seriously, bring along a family member or close friend to help you advocate. “It’s often much easier for them to ask the questions you’re reluctant to ask,” says Lam. This person can back you up if you feel the doctor isn’t listening, pointing out symptoms that he or she has noticed or reinforcing your concerns. An advocate can also take notes to help clarify your doctor’s plan of care, allowing you to fully focus on your doctor.
6. See a Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant.
If your doctor seems rushed or if it’s a struggle to get an appointment, consider seeing a nurse practitioner or physician assistant instead. While these health care providers don’t replace specialists such as an endocrinologist or cardiologist, they often have more time to sit down and listen than your family doc, says Murphy. Research also shows they can be just as good as a general practitioner for managing certain chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. A study published in 2018 in The American Journal of Medicine, for example, found that these types of providers can manage type 2 as well as a primary care physician.
7. Use the “Teach-Back” Technique.
Doctors’ orders can be hard to follow, especially if they involve taking multiple drugs or making big lifestyle changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking. “A lot of this can happen because the doctor–patient visit is often rushed: Your doctor says a lot of things to you, you smile and nod your head, but when you walk out of the office you forget half of it,” says Fiscella. When you’re in your doctor’s office, repeat everything he says to you, in your own words. “This is known as the ‘teach-back’ technique, which is effective because it helps a patient understand and comprehend what they need to do,” says Fiscella. This also allows your provider to correct you if you misunderstood anything.
8. Break Up With Your Doctor.
Breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes it’s necessary. If you find that you’re consistently having problems with your health care provider—he or she is always rushed, constantly interrupts you, or doesn’t answer your questions—then find another provider. Bottom line: “Every patient deserves to be treated with respect,” says Lam.