Did you know an average office visit with your doctor only lasts about 15 minutes? I don’t think you’ll find a doctor anywhere who would say he or she went to medical school to spend a measly 15 minutes per patient. Unfortunately that’s just the way our health care system works.
Even knowing this, I was surprised when I read an article from the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association that said doctors typically interrupt their patients after just 23 seconds of conversation.
So, what does this mean for you? If you want to get the most out of your appointment, you’ve got to be ready with a clear statement of why you are there and what you need to know.
When I have a doctor’s appointment, I start communicating with my doctor several days earlier by sending the most important information to the office to make sure he or she has a chance to look it over before we ever start talking. If you are seeing a new doctor, the Massachusetts General Hospital website has a great form that lets you enter all your basic health info so it is ready to give to the doctor.
You can send in your info by fax, email or even snail mail. Just make sure it arrives at least three business days before your appointment. Here’s what I like to send in advance
• Medications – I want to make sure my doctor has a list of my current medications. That means full disclosure of everything I’m taking – including herbs, vitamins and over-the-counter pain relievers, along with the doses of everything. I also make a note if he or she changed any of my medications at our last meeting.
• Symptoms – This is the purpose of the visit. I start with a reminder of what we discussed the last time I was in the office, then tell my doctor what’s happening now. For example, say I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I’ll make a note that at my last visit, he or she added something to my medications to help me sleep. Now I’m sleeping better but I’m also gaining weight and I feel like my brain is foggy. I want to maintain the continuity of the conversation so we don’t have to start from scratch every time I have an appointment.
• Questions – This is for my benefit and for the doctor’s. If I’m confused about anything, he or she will know to explain it in terms I can understand. If my questions are more in depth, my doctor will know I’ve done my research and that I want more detailed information.
There are other advantages for you as a patient from sending in your questions in advance. If you need to talk about a sensitive or embarrassing topic, like sexual health issues, you may find it easier to write it down instead of having to explain the problem in person. Plus the doctor will be prepared to take the lead to make the conversation less embarrassing.
Of course, information sometimes gets misplaced. So I like to call the office the day before to confirm my appointment and to make sure the information I sent over was given to the doctor. Ultimately, I’m the one paying for the visit, so I’m the one with the most to lose if the doctor doesn’t have all the information needed to help me.
One more important note on full disclosure – your doctor can only work with the information you provide. If you don’t tell your doctor you smoke or how much you drink, you make his or her job much harder and put your own health at risk, because he or she will not have all the details to take care of you. I even tell my doctor how much water I drink!
You need to take responsibility for your health by giving the doctor all the tools to take care of you. And that leads me to the last question I try to ask before my appointment ends: What can I do to help you help me? That’s one more way you can be an advocate for yourself and help make sure the outcome of your office visit is better for you and for your doctor.
Michelle King Robson (pronounced robe-son) is one of the nation's leading women's health and wellness advocates. She is the Founder, Chairperson and CEO of EmpowHER, one of the fastest-growing and largest social health companies dedicated exclusively to women's health and wellness. In 2011 EmpowHER reached more than 60 million women onsite and through syndication expects to reach more than 250 million in 2012.