Take Charge of Your Health!
BY: Michael Castleman
You're sick. Or something has been bothering you. You make an appointment to see your doctor. But that’s only the first step.
Today, doctors have a multitude of high-tech diagnostic tests and treatment options to draw on, and patients are bombarded with health information (some reliable, some not) everywhere they turn. Add the fact that both doctors and patients are short on time, and it's easy to feel lost in the healthcare whirl. "I'm scheduled for fifteen minutes per patient," says Anne Simons, M.D., a family practitioner at health maintenance organization San Francisco Health Plan. "Figure a minute or two to say hello and a minute or two to wrap things up. That leaves only about ten minutes for the business portion of the visit."
To make the most of those critical minutes, you must get organized. Here’s how:
Before Your Appointment
- Prioritize The doctor may not have time to deal with all your complaints in one visit. "Focus on your main concern," advises Dr. Simons. "You may be able to discuss other complaints as well, but decide what takes priority in case you run short on time."
- Record your symptoms That way, you won't forget anything. If it's a new problem: When did it begin? What were the circumstances? Does anything make your symptoms better or worse? If it's an ongoing condition (like heartburn or diabetes), has anything changed recently? "High-tech tests are valuable, but quite often the most valuable information comes from a patient's description of his or her symptoms," says Robin Miller, M.D., an internist in private practice in Medford, Ore.
- Make a list, check it twice It's important for the doctor to have a complete picture of your situation, including all of the therapies that you have tried. So whether it's prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, herbs, acupuncture, physical therapy or yoga -- if you're doing it, write it down.
- Check your Rx supply If you take prescription medicine, be sure to check your supply. It's easier to ask for a refill during a visit than to call for a refill later.
During Your Appointment
- Ask questions Don't be bashful. If you're well-organized about the visit (like arriving with all your time-saving lists), the doctor should have time to answer your questions.
- Bring a friend or relative "When you're anxious about a health problem, it's often difficult to hear everything the doctor says. A friend or relative can help," says Dr. Simons.
- Figure out follow-up Find out how you'll be informed about test results. Typically, doctors call. If you prefer e-mail, most doctors are happy to oblige. If the doctor only contacts you if there's a problem, ask to be called or e-mailed anyway to confirm that your results are normal. That way you can be sure your test results did not fall through bureaucratic cracks.
- Get a second opinion If the doctor says you need surgery or any complicated treatment, or if you feel uncomfortable with the doctor's recommendation, don't hesitate to say you want a second opinion. "When a patient mentions a second opinion, no reputable physician is offended," says Dr. Simons.
- Ask for e-mail info Ask for the doctor's e-mail address. If you have questions after your appointment, it's easier to e-mail than play phone tag.
After Your Appointment
- Do your homework If you have a condition that's chronic or potentially serious -- heartburn, asthma or heart disease -- read up on it. A good place to start is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It has trustworthy information on more than 100 conditions. Knowledge is power. The more you know, the better able you will be to play an active role in optimizing your health and well-being.
Michael Castleman has been called "one of the nation's leading health writers" (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web. Michael is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.