How to Prepare for a Doctor's Appointment as an Older Adult

Wondering how to prepare for a doctor's appointment? Be ready to articulate your "chief complaint", and don't be afraid to ask questions.
May 6, 2024
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We've all been there: after weeks or months of waiting for a doctor's appointment, we leave feeling anxious and unsure if our needs were completely addressed.

Whether you're accompanying a family member or friend or going by yourself, a bit of planning can go a long way in making sure each doctor's visit is an impactful one. The following tips will help you prepare to ensure your physician will know exactly what you need.

Go in With a Plan

Even the most organized and patient-centered doctor is short on time. It's easy for their sense of urgency to rub off on you, causing you to skip over things that are essential for them to know.

To make the most of a time-pressed appointment, the best thing that you can do is plan ahead — well before you get into the waiting room. We've outlined six things you can do before the visit to make the appointment productive.

1. Identify Your “Chief Complaint”

If there's a specific reason you're in your doctor's office for this particular visit, prepare to communicate that to your doctor. Make that need front and center at your appointment.

If an existing medical condition has been troubling you, be sure to bring a symptom diary that details what you've been experiencing. If you're seeing a doctor you've seen before, make sure to detail any new symptoms since your last visit. Compile as much information as possible on when things symptoms and how they've progressed.

If you aren't quite sure what's the matter, that's OK, too. As we age, chief complaints can be more difficult to nail down or articulately describe (unlike a cough, rash, or pain in a specific body part). If you're struggling to zero in on the symptoms, let your doctor know the functional problems you're having instead. Examples of this might be “I can't put on my coat” or “I keep losing things.”

If you don't have a chief complaint and are just there for an annual physical exam, you can still come prepared with your observations and experiences.

2. Prioritize Your Secondary Complaints Into a Top Three List

In an ideal world, every patient would have a chance to discuss their health in detail, with time to talk through all concerns. Unfortunately, time constraints often make it so that this isn't the case.

By the time your doctor's appointment is on the horizon, you might be overwhelmed by secondary issues that have come up along the way. Prioritize them into a top three list ahead of time so your appointment doesn't get derailed.

As you prepare for the appointment, know the order you'd like to discuss these issues in. If you only end up having time to get to two of them, which are the most important two?

Ideally, you'll walk out of the appointment with your main questions answered.

3. Organize Your Thoughts About Your Symptoms

Understanding a patient's story is key to an accurate diagnosis, so the more details you can bring to the appointment, the better.

For example, if you have pain, when did it start? What makes it worse? What makes it better? Does it move anywhere? Providing as much accurate detail as you can about what's troubling you will lead to a better outcome.

It can be helpful to bring a friend or family member with you for taking notes. And if you're accompanying a loved to an appointment and they tend to “clam up” during the visit, you may want to spend time interviewing them or doing a bit of role play beforehand to help them anticipate the most important questions that may be asked.

4. List All “Interval Events” Since Your Last Visit

Interval events include anything notable that happened to you since your last doctor's appointment (if your doctor is not already in the loop). Examples include being hospitalized, surgery, a bad infection, going to the emergency room, or visits with other medical professionals. Any new medical equipment you've started using like a hearing aid or cane is also important to note.

As we age, big non-medical events are important to your doctor, too: divorce, having a grandchild, losing a job, major financial reversals. The medical and social components of our lives become more inextricably linked as we age and conspire to influence health. As a general rule, if you're not sure if something constitutes a “significant event,” include it. It's also helpful to detail how much alcohol you're drinking weekly, if any.

Bring Your Medical 101 Sheet With You

We recommend bringing your Medical 101 Sheet with you to your appointment. Even if you've seen your doctor many times before, and they have your medical records and know your medical history, it's always beneficial to have this information on you.

What to Do When You're Doctor's Appointment is With a Doctor You Haven't Seen Before

If you're seeing a doctor for the first time, don't assume your medical information will make its way from one medical professional to another. Even with the multitude of electronic health records available, it’s likely that a new doctor or nurse may not have a full picture of why you’re coming to see them once you’re in their office.

For all appointments, we recommend bringing your Medical 101 Sheet with you. This provides a good primer on the patient's medical history, including current medications. This way, your doctor can be mindful of any treatments that could interact with medications you’re already taking or the medical conditions you have.

You'll also want to make sure to bring a copy of your insurance card. Often, office staff will check your insurance coverage prior to the appointment, but it's still a good idea to have your card on you.

5. Bring a Complete and Updated List of Medications

One of the biggest risks in medical care is medication errors. In an older patient, concerns about this loom even larger, because older adults tend to be on more medications and these can interact with each other and/or chronic illnesses, potentially making matters worse.

To combat this, you and your doctor should partake in something called “medication reconciliation.” It's essential to bring a complete list of medications to your appointment, including the dosages and frequencies. If it's easier, you can even bring all the actual medications in a bag to your doctor's office.

Know before the appointment which medications you're running out of and may need a refill of. Your list should ideally include the exact name of the medications you're taking, whether it's the brand name or the generic name (for example, the cholesterol lowering drug Lipitor also goes by the name Atorvastatin). This will allow a doctor to spot a “double dose” if you're accidentally taking both the generic and the brand name.

It's very important to include any over the counter drugs that you take frequently on this list. If there are herbal remedies that you use, you should include those as well.

6. Come Prepared to Ask Questions

If any questions have come up since your last office visit — like curiosity about new medications you've read about, or concerns about whether or not certain test results are a big deal — be sure to bring them to the appointment. These questions can be as simple as asking your doctor what they think about doing a crossword puzzle every day to keep cognition sharp to getting their recommendation for a relevant specialist.

If your physician is using medical jargon or terms that you don't understand at any point, don't wait until after the appointment to look them up and get clarity — ask right away if they can explain it in easier-to-understand terms. If you're anxious about something specifically, let your doctor know; perhaps he or she can provide further clarification or comfort. The goal is to leave all doctor's appointments feeling heard and confident in next steps.

Get Organized With Our Worksheet

All of the action items above are covered in our worksheet. You can download it, print it, and use it as a guide to get organized for the appointment.

Leaving a Doctor's Appointment With a Physician You Haven't Seen Before

If you're a new patient, spend extra time with the office staff to make sure all of your information is correct before heading out. Confirm that all of your medical records and family history have made it there. Bring any insurance cards you use to the appointment, and ensure the correct family members or friends are listed as emergency contacts. You can also call the office ahead of time to provide this information.

It's helpful to know how the office is organized. In the event that you have follow up questions after your appointment, find out what hours the office phone line is open. If you need to reach your physician and they're not available, are their other doctors or nurses who will be on call? What does the full care team look like? Is there an online portal that you will be getting access to where you will be able to review test results and correspond with physicians?

It can be particularly helpful to have an advocate with you — often a family member of friend — who can help you navigate this and take notes on all of the information.

Before leaving, set a next appointment date if necessary.

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