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How to make the most of your doctor’s visit

Portrait image of Dr. Paz By Hal Paz, MD, MS

Woman talking to doctor

In the 30 years that I’ve been practicing medicine, the best part has been spending time with patients. In the exam room, I have always been very conscious of how I can put a patient at ease. The symptoms that bring someone to the doctor often make them at least a little anxious. I feel for them. But a doctor also needs the patient’s help to make the right diagnosis, so good communication is incredibly important.

I have spent my entire career involved with teaching and training other doctors, in addition to my administrative responsibilities. At the local VA hospital where I volunteer, I make sure to tell young physicians in training that listening to patients is an essential skill ― now more than ever. When I was very young, doctors still carried a black bag to house calls and expected their patients to follow orders without question. Today, we know that empowered and engaged patients who aren’t afraid to speak their mind have much better outcomes.

But the fact is that modern doctors have limited time to spend with each patient, so we have to work efficiently. Sometimes we might give the impression that we’re focusing on your symptoms rather than on you as a whole person. That’s a shame, because your feelings matter.

As you prepare for your next doctor visit, the following tips can help you come away feeling heard, understood and in control of your health.

Organize your thoughts before your visit.

Over the years I’ve noticed that patients will often wait until the end of the visit to bring up what’s really on their minds. I urge you not to hold back. Jot down the health concerns you want to discuss before you arrive. And make sure you start with the questions that are most important to you. While it’s nice to chat and catch up, let’s start with the heart of the matter — your health.

Consider whether these ideas are right for you:

  • Have a goal in mind: What do you want to get out of your visit?
  • Track symptoms in your mobile phone or a notebook. For example, Wed 11/1: Had migraine all day and went to bed early. Thu 11/2: Woke up feeling dizzy, but felt better by lunchtime.
  • Bring a list of all medications, vitamins, supplements or any alternative treatments you are currently taking. Even “natural” substances like St. John’s Wort or fish oil can interact with a prescription.
  • Ask a close family member or friend to join you, especially when discussing a new diagnosis or treatment plan. It’s always good to have an extra set of ears, and some support.
  • It’s fine to search for health information online. In fact, we encourage patients to educate themselves. But remember, there’s a lot of bad information out there. We’re trained experts and can offer personalized advice just for you. So share what you’ve learned and let’s talk about it.

Don’t be surprised if your doctor asks very personal questions.

We may ask some questions during the visit that sound strange. Are you under stress? Do you smoke and drink? Do you get a good night’s sleep? We’re not here to judge. We need the big picture to know what’s going on with your health. So be candid. Your doctor may be able to refer you to resources that can help.

Tell us if you don’t understand something.

Don’t leave the office feeling confused. It’s quite alright to ask us to explain something again or to repeat an unfamiliar word. If you don’t understand why you’re taking certain medications or what your diagnosis means, then we haven’t fully done our job.

Understand why your doctor may be typing during your visit.

One downside of electronic health records is the need to enter data while sitting with a patient. It can be off-putting to see your physician typing away at a keyboard instead of making eye contact. I assure you, your doctor is paying attention. Those notes build a digital record of your health history and treatment plan. That way, we have all your information in one place and don’t need to waste time asking the same thing again and again.

Know that it’s OK to communicate with your doctor between visits.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with your physician’s office between visits. For example, if we prescribe a new medicine that makes you feel not so great, or if new symptoms pop up, don’t wait until we meet again to let us know. Reach out to your health care team immediately.

Different doctors have different systems. So before you leave the office, find out how you can communicate between visits. Many medical practices today have secure patient portals, websites where you can send and receive messages.

Also, many health insurance companies, including Aetna, offer a 24-hour nurse-line and care managers for patients with complex conditions, such as diabetes or cancer.

Bottom line: You and your doctor are partners. I’ll keep reminding the doctors I supervise to listen carefully. And you should feel empowered to communicate your needs with your entire health care team. You’ll feel better in lots of ways.

About the author

Dr. Paz is Aetna’s executive vice president and chief medical officer. In that role, he leads policy decisions and drives innovations to improve patient experience. He is trained as a pulmonologist, a specialist who focuses on people with lung conditions.