DOC, WE NEED TO TALK: Improving communication with your medical provider.

No matter our age, or whether we’re diligent about scheduling things precisely on time, at one point or another we visit our medical provider for a “yearly” physical.

You’re feeling pretty good, and without any ailments of note, you expect the exam to be pretty routine stuff. First, you step on the scale (hmm – maybe not exactly what you expected, but moving on…). Then the nurse takes your temperature, checks your blood pressure, and asks for an updated list of medications. Yes, even the over-the-counter stuff. You do your best to recall the vitamins and supplements you’ve added to your regimen since your last physical and having watched a year’s worth Dr. Oz DVR recordings. (You also make a mental note that you got your money’s worth from your Amazon Prime account just in the shipping saved with those supplements alone.)

Image of young woman talking with her doctor

Your medical provider comes into the exam room, and the two of you exchange a few pleasantries about how you’ve been while he/she washes their hands and grabs the stethoscope. Heart and lungs – check. Next, a look into your eyes with that little light, and maybe a peek up your nose (definitely in that order) – both nostrils, then finally the age-old, “open wide,” for a good look into your mouth and throat. You hear, “Mmmm… hmmmmm.”  That reaction must mean everything looks fine.

Then you watch your provider type some notes into a computer or tablet since everything is electronic these days. Dr. So-and-so says, “We should do bloodwork. Do you have time to stop by the lab before you leave today?” Then the doctor quickly asks, “You didn’t eat this morning, did you?”

HA! This isn’t your first rodeo. Almost boastfully you reply, “Nope. I didn’t eat a thing this morning. I knew you’d want to draw some blood, Doc.”

As your provider summarizes your visit and tells you everything looks pretty good, and to keep doing what you’re doing – although losing 5-10 pounds wouldn’t be a bad idea – the inevitable question comes. “Do you have any questions for me, Mr./Ms. Patient?” You answer, “I do!” But suddenly your mind is a blank. You’ve forgotten what you wanted to ask while you were here (except maybe that embarrassing question about the “miracle supplement” you/your significant other heard about on Dr. Oz). Oh well, you’ll ask next time you come in.

That happens a lot. People are sure they’ll remember to mention the very thing they’ve been thinking of for weeks in anticipation of their medical visit, and BAM! The time comes to bring it up, and they can’t remember at all. The solution is simple. Write your questions down. You can even use old fashioned pen and paper. Nothing fancy or technical is required. Once you make your list, reorder and number the questions making #1 your most significant concern down to your least significant, just in case there isn’t enough time to discuss everything.

If you have trouble coming up with what to ask, there are plenty of websites to provide help with that, especially when seeing a provider for a specific health issue. You might not think of everything you ask, such as how complex or invasive are the tests or what about medications and possible side effects, etc. There may also be several treatment options to consider. Having the questions ready in advance and a place to write the answers is a valuable tool.

The National Health Institute (NIH) has an excellent printable plan to follow when going to a medical appointment. There is a checklist to review, a detailed chart to fill out that helps keep track of your medications, a list of tips to help you make the best use of the time you have with your medical provider, and an extensive list of questions to ask during your appointment.

There’s also an app for that. The Agency for Healthcare Research Quality (AHRQ) has useful information about communicating with your provider as well as a free “Question Builder” app you can download. The app allows you to select questions or create your own and then save them to your appointment already on your calendar or send them to any email address you choose so they’ll be handy during your appointment.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your provider questions while you’re at an office visit. Being prepared helps you organize your thoughts so both you and your provider can make the most of your time spent together.


The information presented here was reviewed by John Block, MD (April 2019) 

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