09/12/2013 03:34 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Tips for Improving Your Next Visit to the Doctor

Did you know that the average amount of time a doctor spends with a patient is less than 15 minutes? Fifteen minutes is a short period of time for a patient to relay everything they want or expect out of a visit.

This is especially problematic if the patient has been waiting patiently for that appointment. In order to maximize the time you spend with your doctor, here are a few things to think about before, during, and after the appointment.

Take Advantage of Pre-Registration Services, and Prepare and Gather Important Paperwork Ahead of Time

Time is money, and the more a patient visits the more the reward -- for the physicians, that is. More and more, practices use a pre-registration process intended to improve the on-site experience and increase face time with the physician, as well as improve patient scheduling efficiency. The preregistration process usually occurs a few days before the appointment, when a registrar or office staffer calls the patient to ask a series of questions about insurance, medical history, current medical concerns, etc.

If the office has pre-registration, the process can be optimized by having all your appropriate paperwork available, including insurance information, referral contact information, medical and surgical history, medications, allergies, etc. If pre-registration is not an option, having this information at the time of arrival at the doctor's office, especially if it is typed and easy to read, will certainly speed up the registration process, simplify billing, and increase the value of the appointment.

Know the Medications You Are Currently Taking Medication

Reconciliation will certainly come up, and when it does, specific information is required. It is of the utmost importance that the physician knows not only the medications being used, but also knows the dosages, the effectiveness and/or side effects of the medication. A doctor can better recommend other medications or treatment options, if they are aware of what you are currently taking and its effectiveness.

Know Your Family's Medical History

Family medical history is critical! The medical issues of family members including mother, father, siblings, grandparents, as well as cousins, aunts and uncles can be useful. Keep a record and share this information with your physician and other medical providers.

Gain Access To Medical Records

In today's age of electronic medical records and digital data, it has become easier than ever to transfer pertinent information from one office to another. If you are visiting a new physician or had tests performed at the request by another doctor, be sure that you call ahead and coordinate the transfer of your records from one office to another. It is also wise to always maintain your own copy of this information.

Note Your System, Know What You Want to Know, "Mal de Petit Papier"

While it is never smart to self-diagnose, it can be useful to use the Internet to understand what may or may not be wrong with you. While the Internet should not be used for final diagnosis, it is important to learn terminology that your physician may use and may help you better understand and describe your concerns, as well as your symptoms. Come prepared to the appointment with questions regarding your condition. Make sure to ask the physician any and all important questions during that precious time you have with the expert, and be sure to have them answered to your satisfaction.

Understand what you are being told before the physician leaves the exam room.

You are paying for this time with the physician, so get your money's worth.

When I was in medical school, one of my professors spoke about the "mal de petite papier." He was referring to the note, the piece of paper the patient brings with them that lists his/her concerns, symptoms, and questions. His advice was "first thing, take the paper from the patient and answer their listed questions." He was telling us this as a means to be efficient, and to save us time while addressing the patients' needs, instead of waiting for the patient to express them and possibly elaborate and prioritize inappropriately or too slowly. Regardless of the reason, having that piece of paper with all the concerns, lifestyle impact, etc., is critical for patient physician communication: Write down the symptoms, their severity, frequency, life impact, and your concerns.

Get to Know the Why and the Who Behind the Tests and Examinations That Are Being Ordered

You have a right to know why your physician is asking for certain tests, (e.g., MRI, X-rays, blood work, etc.). What is the doctor concerned about?

How will the result of the test impact diagnosis and treatment? If you have your medical records, include a list of test results and the date of service, as you may be able to avoid unnecessary re-testing (and charges).

You should also know who is performing the test, as I have written about many times. The health care provider performing the test and interpreting the results should be an expert who has been trained for that responsibility. It is not uncommon for a test to be bundled with others that are unnecessary.
Also, some tests may be being performed by those not fully trained in the service. Self-referral is rampant and helps drive up insurance premiums, without contributing to better care.

Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up

Your appointment does not end when you walk out of the doctor's office. Before the doctor leaves the exam room, ask about follow up. Make sure that you ask about what you can and/or should not do. Ask about the prescribed medication, physical activity, diet and rest. Will you be expected to initiate follow up, or will the doctor or his/her office be contacting you, and if so, when? Will the office only contact you if something else is required, or if a test result is a problem, or will they also call to say, "You are fine, do not worry, your symptoms are temporary," etc.? What will be required and/or necessary in the days or weeks ahead? What should you expect from the test or from the treatment, etc.? When do you need to return to assess your situation? How will you know if things are improving or not?

You are giving your time, money, and putting your well-being and possibly your life in the hands of the physician. Make sure the physician recognizes her/his responsibility and provides you with sufficient time and answers to your questions. Remember, you will be billed and expected to pay for the physicians' time and efforts, but in addition to the finances, you will also pay with your future quality of life.

For more by Helene Pavlov, M.D., click here.

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