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Judith Johnson

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8 Guidelines for Communicating With Doctors

Posted: 07/05/10 10:54 AM ET

When going to a doctor's appointment, just showing up is not enough. There are things you can do to support yourself in getting maximum value from the visit. Many people see doctors as experts who are going to fix them and therefore give over all sense of personal responsibility, waiting to be told what to do. The optimum visit is a dialogue between two experts -- don't forget that you are the expert at living in your body!

Here are guidelines for creating more productive visits with doctors.

1. Be Clear About Your Reasons For Seeing The Doctor When Making The Appointment: They need to know the severity and urgency of your complaint to determine when to schedule the appointment and how much time to allow. What you might dismiss as minor may be a red flag of a potentially serious problem. Conversely, something causing you serious discomfort may require time to heal rather than medical intervention and therefore not be seen as urgent by the doctor.

2. Come Prepared And On Time: It's a great idea to maintain a notebook or computer file where you keep track of your medical history. Then, when you come to the doctor, bring an up-to-date copy of your medical history and a list of your medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) and any natural remedies, treatments or other therapies you are using. If you are seeing other doctors/health practitioners about your symptoms/diagnosis, be sure to bring relevant materials from them as well as your own notes. Consider typing up a list of your questions and concerns for the doctor to help insure that all your needs are addressed. Be sure to leave space on your list to take notes during the appointment including keeping track of follow-up actions.

Many doctors chronically run late for their appointments. Arrive on time anyway in the event that they are running on schedule. If the doctor is late, consider the fact that it is probably because someone else is getting the help they need. Bring your own reading material and carry it with you throughout your appointment. If you work yourself up into a tizzy over the delay, you are likely to be less effective getting your own needs met during your appointment.

3. Be Specific And Factual About Your Concerns/Symptoms: Prioritize your concerns and share them with your doctor at the beginning of your appointment. Ask to address what concerns you most first. If reporting a new problem, describe the frequency, duration, location and severity of your symptoms as well as what makes it better or worse, any treatments you have tried so far and with what response. Also mention any relevant family history.

4. Get Right To The Point: Don't beat around the bush. Stay focused on the issue at hand. Try not to ramble or go off topic or to get too emotional if you can help it. If you have a friendly rapport with your doctor, handle your business first and then you can chit chat later if time permits.

5. Be Assertive And Ask For What You Want And Need: Sometimes doctors forget their manners, aren't listening to you or answering your questions to your satisfaction. Let them know how they are failing to meet your needs. You are paying for their time and deserve their undivided attention. If the doctor seems distracted or is rushing you, express your concern in a positive way. For example, you might say, "I know you are busy, but I really need you to help me understand what is going on with my body." Getting mad usually doesn't help -- but giving honest and clear feedback usually does.

6. Ask For Further Explanation If You Disagree Or Don't Understand: Your job is to give the doctor information and feedback. So, do that. Let them know if you don't follow what they are saying or have a different point of view that you want them to consider. Remember this is a dialogue between two experts.

7. If You Want Your Doctor's Opinion About A New Drug Or Procedure You Heard About, Ask How It Applies To You: You may not like or agree with your doctor's point of view but should certainly take it into account in any decisions you make. You can always ask for more of an explanation or consult other doctors, but at some point you need to make an informed decision.

8. Summarize And Be Sure You Understand The Follow-up Prescribed: Columbia University women's health expert Marianne Legato, MD, suggests you leave the appointment with an understanding of why the doctor thinks you have the symptoms or condition you are experiencing; what lab tests he or she is ordering and why, the doctor's plan for contacting you about the results and a plan for easing your symptoms. Don't leave with unanswered questions or confusion. Make sure that you have captured everything in your notes.

Remember, doctors are experts we consult about our health, but ultimately we are left to make our own decisions about what advice, prescriptions and protocols we follow and which we don't. Take good care of yourself.