How to Make the Most of a Visit to the Doctor

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Navigating the medical system can be a daunting process. It’s challenging enough to find a doctor with openings, let alone a good doctor. And the internet isn’t always much help. In fact, a 2015 survey by ZocDoc showed that nine out of 10 millennials avoid going to the doctor entirely.

What is helpful, however, is this in-depth guide to having a good doctor’s appointment written for The New York Times by Dr. Danielle Ofri, author and associate professor of medicine at New York University.

“As a doctor I often get asked by friends and family how to make the most of a medical visit,” she wrote.

Doctor pbs rewireOfri’s advice applies firsthand to you as a patient but is also useful from the position of a family member or a caregiver. The guide reads like an insider’s perspective, and having tips and tricks written by a doctor is invaluable information.

Ofri breaks the appointment down into four major parts: finding the doctor, preparing for your appointment, what happens during the appointment and afterward.

How to choose the right doctor

Ofri accurately points out that it feels easier to select things like blenders than a doctor. You can find pages of reviews online for anything you’d want to buy, plus reviews for service providers like hair stylists and mechanics. But reviews for medical professionals are harder to come by.

Here are some of Ofri’s top tips to find the right care provider:

  • Start by determining which doctors in your insurance network are conveniently located.
  • If you don’t have insurance, check out local clinics and health centers that might have sliding-scale fees or payment plans.
  • Ask for doctor recommendations from friends who have more experience with the medical system.
  • Decide if you prefer a small or large practice, but know that ultimately, “who your individual doctor is matters more than the practice,” Ofri said.

What to do before your appointment

Once you’ve selected a doctor and nailed down an appointment, there are steps you can take before your visit to aim for the best experience possible.

First, set your goals. Here are the questions Ofri recommends asking yourself before your appointment:

  • Is this going to be a check-up?
  • Is this a “maintenance visit” for your ongoing medical issues?
  • Is there a new symptom or problem you need to bring up?
  • Do you need to talk about big events in the near future?

It’s important to be realistic about what you can accomplish at a single doctor’s appointment. Many of us have laundry lists of things we want to discuss with a doctor, but Ofri suggests picking out the two or three most important issues to focus on. Quality over quantity, she said.

And as always, bring relevant health records and test results, medications and insurance information.

Get the most out of your time

You’ve made it to the doctor’s office. Remember: Appointments are a two-way conversation, and communication is everything.

Rewire’s sister publication Next Avenue has covered commonly expressed frustrations with the lack of time doctors spend listening to their patients.

Doctor pbs rewire“Not only is this frustrating, it could potentially damage your health in the long term if you don’t get treatment or undergo an unsuitable treatment,” Next Avenue’s Susan Johnston Taylor wrote in a story about standing up for yourself at the doctor’s office. “That’s why self-advocacy is an important skill for anyone navigating the medical system.”

While Ofri asks patients to be patient with the multi-tasking a doctor faces with electronic medical records, if you’re feeling outright ignored, it’s time to say something.

“Some doctors can listen well while they are typing, but if your doctor does not appear to be listening to you, you are well within your right to politely acknowledge that,” Ofri wrote. “You could say something like, ‘I know that you have to write this all down in the computer, but if you could give me one minute of your full attention, I’ll tell you the important stuff as concisely as possible.’ ”

Some of Ofri’s other during-the-appointment tips:

  • Keep track of time to make sure your top items are being covered.
  • Resist sharing new concerns at the last minute. Instead, set up another appointment, make a phone call or send an email through your patient portal later.
  • Don’t leave until you completely understand your treatment plan.

Take a few minutes to reflect

Your experience with your doctor doesn’t end when your appointment does. It’s critical to reflect on the time you spent there to decide how to move forward. Here are some questions Ofri recommends asking yourself, even on the way home:

  • Did you get your questions answered?
  • Did you cover your three most important issues?
  • Do you know what you are supposed to do now? (Which meds to take? Which tests to have? Which specialists to see?)

Follow through on the plan you set out with your doctor. If you have more questions, find a way to get in touch. And ultimately, if things didn’t work out as planned, know that it’s OK to close the door on one provider and go through this process again with another.

“A relationship with a doctor is like any relationship, and you need to feel that it’s the right one,” Ofri wrote. “If something doesn’t feel right, that’s worth paying attention to. After all, you are entrusting this person with your life.”

Grace Birnstengel

Grace Birnstengel is the associate editor at Next Avenue—a PBS site with daily content for older adults. She is also a contributor at the music blog Stereogum, has bylines at City Pages and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, volunteers as an editor for The Riveter Magazine and most recently worked as the associate editor at a trade magazine group in New York City. Reach her at [email protected] or @grace__ on Twitter.