Most patients feel that time crunch that comes with doctor visits—as soon as the physician walks through the exam room door, the imaginary stopwatch begins.
According to the National Institutes for Health, the average primary care office visit is about 17 minutes, and an average of 6.5 topics are brought up during that time, giving less than 2 minutes of focus per topic.
You may experience more or less time with your health care provider, and it may not be as short when visiting a specialist, but it certainly highlights the need to be as efficient as possible in addressing your needs, getting your questions answered, and communicating important health info like medication side effects or making sure your medications are still working or needed.
Here are five strategies for making your next visit more effective:
1. Write down your questions in advance
Keep a running list of questions in a notebook or on your phone so you can add to it for at least a few days before your visit. If your list is way too long to cover in one visit, let the doctor’s office know that you’d like a longer appointment if possible, and also prioritize the list just in case it isn’t.
2. Get ready to be honest
Your doctor doesn’t benefit from hearing what you think you should say, instead of what’s really going on. Maybe you stopped taking your medication because it made you nauseated, felt ineffective, killed your libido, caused mood changes, was dosed too many times per day, or is too expensive. Getting the right medication for you—not just for your condition—is incredibly important, so if you need an alternative, speak up.
3. Compile all your medication information
One of the first experiences you have when you get to your exam room is having an assistant ask you about your medications, as they enter them into an electronic record. Oftentimes the list that ends up in your record isn’t completely accurate because the office staff couldn’t find the right match in the system, you may have forgotten the dose or exact name of med, or you left out some meds that you didn’t think were relevant to the particular visit – maybe because it was prescribed by another provider, it’s something you only use now and then, it’s a topical med, etc.
It’s important to know that the system your doctor or nurse is inputting your medical history into doesn’t usually have information about your meds other than what you tell them.
Be prepared for your doctor’s appointments with information regarding all of the prescription medications you’re taking including topicals, inhalers, eye drops, etc, from all of your health care providers. Also inform them of medications you may only take occasionally. Even if you don’t use a med every day, it is still an important part of your story. Over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, and herbal supplements are important too, as these can cause potential drug interactions just like prescription drugs.
The medications you’re taking can play a major role in how you are feeling, in determining the best and safest treatment choices for you, and potentially as a cause of your symptoms.
4. Don’t forget to talk about your medications during the time with your doctor
Often, once the doctor is in the room, the visit will focus on the symptoms you’re experiencing, treatment options, and necessary tests to take. What medications you’re using and what role they may play in the symptoms you’re experiencing may get only a sliver of time, if any at all. But your experience in taking medication—especially if you’re having challenges taking your meds as directed, concerned about side effects, or even just wondering if the meds are working, whether your dose needs to change, or even if it’s time to stop your meds —is a crucial part of the conversation. So, make sure to ask about your meds – and that includes over-the-counter drugs, herbals, and dietary supplements.
5. Ask about follow-up instructions
Sometimes, patients get so focused on what’s going on during the office visit, they neglect to get more direction in terms of what happens next. For example, do you need to come back for a follow-up? If so, when, what’s dictating the time? How will you know if your treatment is working? Do you need to take lab tests to know about the effect or potential side effects of a medication? What should you do if there are side effects to your treatment that are troubling? Talk next steps before the visit ends.
In general, the most important strategy is to be open to communication about your needs, fears, and reactions. Using that 17 minutes to collaborate with your doctor on a treatment plan that works for you is definitely time well spent.
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