Experts have found that doctors tend to interrupt patients just 20 to 30 seconds after they begin speaking during an office visit. But bossy doctors are just one reason you may feel shortchanged when you leave your physician’s office. The visit itself may feel way too short—because it is. Many office visits last 20 minutes or less, barely enough time to discuss something as important as your health.
Here’s how to prepare for your visit, and feel confident about asking questions during your appointment.
Study up before your visit.
Research any medical conditions or concerns you may have, by gathering information from reputable websites. Generally, government health websites and those maintained by medical associations, large nonprofit groups dedicated to a single medical condition, and university medical centers have the most trustworthy, up-to-date medical information. Make notes and write down any questions. However, don’t hand your doctor a huge sheaf of printouts and expect her to respond to them during your visit. And don’t try to diagnose your symptoms or self prescribe your remedies. It’s still up to your doctor to do that.
Make a list of questions and prioritize them.
You’ll feel more confident when talking with your doctor—and you’ll get the answers and info you need. The bonus: In one review of 33 office-visit studies, researchers found that people who brought checklists got more time with their doctor.
Once you’re in the exam room, don’t be afraid to give your doctor the list. “I always ask to see it, so that I can be sure that important questions aren’t left for the last minute of our visit,” Dr. Stall says. “It’s OK to give your list to your doctor—and OK to ask him or her to give it back so that you can refer to it.”
In one study, older people who practiced their questions just before a doctor’s appointment were nearly twice as likely to speak up during the visit than people who didn’t rehearse. Ask your spouse, another relative, or close friend to play doctor while you voice your health concerns, and ask every question on your list out loud. Best time to do it: In the hours just before your appointment.
Bring a family member or friend along.
Another person who knows about your health and your concerns can help you listen carefully, ask the right questions, and even help you make important decisions during a doctor’s appointment.
Replaying an audiotape of your visit could assist you in better understanding instructions and information that you may have missed or not fully understood at the time.
Bring in your meds.
Get a canvas tote bag and designate it as your “medicine tote.” Several times a year, toss in all your prescription drugs as well as herbal supplements, vitamins, and over-the-counter remedies and bring it to your doctor’s appointment. This will help your doctor understand if you’re experiencing any problems with drug interactions or if you’re taking any drugs you really don’t need.
Tell your doctor ALL about you.
If you haven’t done so already, give your doctor your past health history, your family’s health history, and your own lifestyle history at your next annual check-up. When discussing your own past, include major illnesses, allergies, and drug reactions. Family history? Summarize the major illnesses of your first-degree relatives (parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents), and pay special attention to medical conditions such as diabetes that seem to run in the family. Clue your doctor in on your own lifestyle—tell her how much you exercise, what and how you eat, whether you have a pet you enjoy, how stressed you are, whether you smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, any over-the-counter or prescription drugs (from another doc) that you take regularly.
Evaluate your doctor.
Is she too bossy? Is he too deferential? Does your doctor interrupt you? Does he take your views as seriously as you’d like? Try discussing your concerns first, and make a good-faith effort to build a relationship of trust and respect with your physician. But if it’s not working out, don’t feel obligated to stay. Studies show, patients who don’t trust their doctors simply don’t get well as quickly, probably because they’re less motivated to follow advice and treatment. Ask to see another doctor in the same practice, or ask friends and family for recommendations for a new doctor.