The following are 10 tips for making the doctor-patient relationship work for you:
Before the Visit:
1. Create your health history. It’s not enough to rush through a form in the waiting room while you’re distracted; take the time to do your own record in the relative quiet of home when information is more accessible to you. Wallis’ recommendations include:
your personal situation, from who your insurance carrier is to what triggers stress in you
the major health issues of close family members
your record of injuries, accidents, surgeries, harmful exposures
copies of lab reports, tests, dates of immunizations
a system to keep the records available and up-to-date
2. Analyze your present illness and chief complaint. Dr. Wallis suggests answering questions as specifically as you can, including:
When did the symptoms start?
How have they changed?
What makes them better, or worse?
What is the precise location of the problem?
What questions do you want the doctor to answer?
3. Prepare a list of questions that you want to bring with you to the doctor. Prioritize them so that, given time constraints, you can ask the most important questions first.
4. Spend time and effort to find the right doctor at the outset, said Keene. That includes doing the following:
Self-analysis — For example, would you rather cool your heels in the waiting room so you have more time in the office, or do you want a doctor who runs a tight ship and gets you out quickly? If you have a serious illness, do you want a doctor who sticks with the standard, or one who aggressively pushes for everything that is possible?
Competency check — Is the doctor board-certified and experienced in your particular issues?
“Face time” — Meet the doctor in person when you’re fully clothed and healthy. Ask direct questions that concern you about the practice. Yes, people do go and interview doctors beforehand. Note: find out if you have to pay for the visit.
During the Visit:
5. State your symptoms or ask your questions all at once. What often happens, said Keene, is that the doctor is finished and walking out the door when the patient says something like, “Oh, one more thing. I’ve also been getting dizzy a couple of times a day. Is that a problem?” It’s unfair to do that, she said. And extremely frustrating for the doctor, Wallis said. If you have more concerns, schedule another appointment or a follow-up call.
6. Speak up if something about the visit bothers you. For example, if you hate those paper gowns that leave you feeling chilled and vulnerable, don’t seethe or shrink. Politely and clearly tell the doctor that if it is not convenient for the practice to carry other types of cover-ups (for example, flannel ones) then you would prefer discussing your condition after the exam, fully clothed.
7. Understand the diagnosis, prescription and treatment. Ask for an explanation in language you can understand. Basic, but not condescending, works for most. But if you are well versed in your condition, let your doctor know that the conversation matches your level of knowledge. Make sure you understand the treatment plan and any prescriptions. If you don’t know what you’re taking, and when, how can you be sure your prescription was filled accurately?
After the Visit:
8. Follow the treatment plan. Often patients do not follow instructions and then come back to the doctor with the same symptoms. It can be one of the most frustrating aspects of treating patients, Wallis said. “Doctors are taught to take it stoically, be patient, repeat things.” They may get through it, but how are you being helped if you don’t follow through on the best plan the doctor has devised for you?
9. Find out when the doctor takes phone calls and when yours are likely to be returned. There are often questions remaining after a visit, results of tests, etc. Leave the numbers where you can be reached and when. It is very difficult to reach anyone in these busy times, so make the effort to be available and learn when the doctor is, too. Sometimes it helps to use your primary care doctor — who may be more willing and able to explain matters — as the intermediary in getting test results rather than speaking to the specialist, Wallis said.
10. Acknowledge work well done. If you find a doctor you like to work with, “Care for the doctor,” by doing such things as complying with directions and not abusing the amount of time you take after hours on the phone, Wallis said. Many good physicians are retiring at the peak of their profession and going into other types of medical work. It’s tough in the trenches, she said. On the other hand, Keene said, “Kindness, thank you notes and words of appreciation lubricate all human relationships.”
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