Q&A Making the Most of Your Doctor Visit

Preparing in advance and setting priorities for your time with your physician will allow you to get what you need from your appointment and develop a valuable relationship with your provider. Here Juliana Hansen, MD, division chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and three current OHSU residents—Anne Radecki, MD; Matt Lewis, MD; and Hetal Fichadia, MD—share their ideas to help patients make the most of their medical appointments, particularly when meeting with a physician for the first time.

Q. Recognizing that patients’ goals for a visit vary widely, depending on their unique diagno­ses and needs, are there some gen­eral steps that patients can take to prepare for a visit with a physician?

A. Patients should think about what they want to get out of their visit: con­firm a diagnosis, receive a prognosis, discuss treatment options? Communicating their goal for the visit will help focus the conversation and ensure that they get what they need. Thinking about their priorities (quality of life, avoiding pain, longevity) before they come in is also helpful. Being clear on priorities and communi­cating them will help everyone.

Q. Is there any specific information that patients should consider bringing along to a visit?

A.It is always appreciated when a patient brings along a written version of their medical history if it is complicated, and the same applies for a list of medications. This information can be handed to a doctor or used by the patient to make sure that questions are answered correctly. It is remarkable how many people forget details of their medical history, surgical procedures they’ve undergone, and medications they’ve taken. This information is essential in starting a new medical relation­ship. Finding out pertinent family history can also be helpful. Prob­lems related to anesthesia, bleed­ing disorders, clotting disorders, heart disease, and cancer patterns in family members may be very important information.

Q. Do you have any advice for patients regarding research that they might want to undertake in advance of their appointment?

A.If possible, it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time researching your doc­tor’s expertise and your diagnosis. When searching online, always be sure you are getting information from official, reputable medical websites, university sites, or government sites. Blogs and mes­sage boards are not reliable sources of information and can create false impressions that may at best waste time and at worst be detrimental to decision-making and the doctor/ patient relationship. Websites such as those of the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov), American Cancer Society (cancer.org), Ameri­can Society of Plastic Surgeons (plasticsurgery.org), and American College of Surgeons (facs.org) will provide reliable information.

Q. Once at the appoint­ment, are there any spe­cific questions a patient should ask or steps she should take to ensure that commu­nication with the physician is open and thorough?

A. Patients may want to start by finding out if there are time constraints they need to consider. Knowing how much time has been allotted for the appointment will help you prioritize questions and get organized. Once you are com­municating with the physician, be upfront about what you know about your diagnosis and treatment options, and make sure that you speak up if you don’t understand something. Confirm early on with your doctor that he or she is familiar with your diagnosis and comfort­able treating you. Don’t hesitate to ask how often your doctor treats people with your diagnosis and how many patients he or she has treated.

Q. Do you have any thoughts about the value of record­ing a visit or taking notes of topics covered?

A. If you want to make an audio recording of your appointment, be sure to first ask your doctor if he or she is comfortable with that. If not, taking notes is a good option. Bringing someone along to take notes for you is even better. Stud­ies have shown that most patients retain only about 10 percent of what is told to them during an appoint­ment. Having a printed summary or notes to refer to is a really good idea.

Q. Are there other steps patients should consider as they prepare for an appointment or engage in dialogue with their doctor dur­ing the visit to ensure a productive, satisfying overall experience?

A. Patients should let their doctor know about things that are really important to them on which their treatment may have an impact, such as work responsibilities, lei­sure activities, athletic pursuits, and family responsibilities. It is very helpful for patients to disclose unusual family situations, insur­ance issues, and caregiver and sup­port details that may affect treat­ment decisions. Religious beliefs that may have an impact on treat­ment decisions are also essential to disclose, such as the desire to avoid any blood products. Patients who have been clear about their priori­ties for treatment and their personal circumstances will be able to work with their doctor to create a treat­ment plan that is appropriate and satisfying.