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Get the most from your doctor appointment

By Michael D. Jacobson, D.O., M.P.H, CHM’s Medical Director

What if you were told you were going to lead an expedition to a foreign country, and your boss, who had lived in that country for 20 years, didn’t give you any instructions nor any clear picture on why you were going. Instead, he told you, “I’m here for you. Let me know if you have any questions.” Then he walked away. Chances are you wouldn’t know where to start or what questions to ask.

That isn’t much different than what it’s like for most patients who encounter a health problem for the first time. They’ve never had it before and don’t know what’s going on, whether they should get it checked out right away, or if it’s safe to ignore it and see if it goes away on its own.

You want to make the most of your time with your doctor and quickly get to the bottom of the issue. Here’s how to tell your doctor and optimize your appointment, giving you the best results and maximizing your time with your physician.

By asking a series of specific questions, doctors seek to elicit a thorough history of what’s called the “chief complaint.” That’s medical language for the primary concern that brought you into the office.

Usually, if a patient gives the doctor the answers to these questions, they will either have a very good idea of what is going on or at least how to proceed with the evaluation.

Here are the questions you’ll likely be asked:

  • What concern brings you into the office today?
  • When did it start?
  • Can you remember any details as to what was going on when you first experienced this (i.e., causation)?
  • If it’s pain or discomfort, can you characterize it? In other words, does it feel sharp or dull, constant or intermittent? Does it stay in one place or radiate anywhere else?
  • Is there anything that seems to make it get worse?
  • Is there anything that seems to relieve it?
  • What have you already tried?
  • Have you been evaluated or had any other treatment?
  • Is there any prior history of this, either with you personally or immediate family members?
  • Has anything changed since this started?
  • Do you have any thoughts about what might be going on?
  • Is there anything else that you would like to add that you haven’t told me?

By preparing for these questions ahead of time and writing down your responses to them, you’re ready to talk with your doctor. Contact your doctor’s office and ask if even before seeing you, your physician would review your answers.

My experience is that I can read something my patient has written in a fraction of the time it takes me to get the same information verbally. Furthermore, by having this information in advance (even if it is just minutes before seeing you), I’m much better prepared, and you’ll benefit because I’ll know much more about where I should focus my attention.