03/29/2013 09:01 pm ET Updated May 29, 2013

Time for Your Check-up!: How to Get the Most Out of Your Doctor's Visit


A visit to the doctor's office can be overwhelming for many of us. There is so much to remember for an appointment slot that may only last for 15 minutes. But it doesn't have to be stressful. Having good health is partly dependent on effectively navigating the health system and learning how to better advocate for our families and ourselves. In the medical field, we call this being health literate.

Health literacy is the ability to get, process, and understand health information and services and to use that information to make appropriate and better choices about your health and medical care. Here are some steps within your power to start making the system work for you and to get the most out of your and your family's doctor's visit.

In between Visits:

• Keep a medical journal, more commonly known as a personal health record (pHr) for each family member. If you are comfortable with using Internet and mobile technology, there are many programs and apps that now support creating an electronic pHr. Speak with your health professional regarding their preference on which one to use. If you don't want to use the Internet or mobile technology, buy a notebook and simply write. The things to record are 1) any symptoms that happen including the time and day they appear and what makes the symptoms better or worse; 2) home test results such as temperature checks, glucose levels, blood pressure monitoring, etc.; 3) questions that come to mind that you want to remember to ask during the visit; 4) a list of medications taken including prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medicines; 5) notes on new allergies to any medicines or foods; 6) a list of all your doctors or health professionals along with their specialty
• Talk with family members (parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.) to fully know your family health history.
• Do your best to keep all appointments. The timing of appointments is especially important for children.

During the Visit:

• Bring you or your family member's personal health record or journal to the visit.
• If it is a child's visit, a trusted adult should accompany the child. Even for adults, it can be helpful to bring someone with you that you trust can communicate on your behalf in case you are ill, as well as help write down notes from the visit. Taking someone with you is important especially if there is a language barrier or difficulty reading or understanding material given to you.
• Ask the doctor to tell you your vital numbers and lab results. Write them down -- weight, height, blood pressure, and other important test and lab results.
• Write down new medicines and their doses. For children, keep your own record of immunizations or shots your child received.
• Ask all questions that you may have. You have a right to do so no matter the question. Don't be embarrassed to ask questions.
• Make sure you clearly understand any answers, diagnoses, and treatment plans provided to you. One of the best ways to demonstrate if you understand is for you to repeat what the doctor told you.
• Do not hesitate to provide feedback to the doctor about the visit -- what you think did not go well and what did go well. It is always helpful to hear how you think we are doing.