How to Prepare For a Doctor's Appointment

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.

If there’s a specific reason you’re seeking medical attention on this particular visit, prepare to communicate that to your doctor. 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, describe 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, you can still come prepared with your observations and experiences.

By the time your appointment is on the horizon, you might be overwhelmed by all the secondary issues that have come up along the way. Prioritize them so your appointment doesn’t get derailed. Avoid having too many issues to tackle by heading into the appointment with a top three list that prioritizes what you most want addressed. Ideally, you’ll walk out of the appointment with your main questions answered.

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.

If you’re accompanying your loved one 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 what might be asked.

Interval events include anything notable that happened to you since you last saw your doctor, if they’re not already in the loop. Examples include being hospitalized, surgery, a bad infection, going to the ER, or visits with other doctors you’ve seen.

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.

One of the biggest risks in medical care is medication errors. In older adults, this is especially notable because they 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 critical 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. 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.

If any questions have come up since your last appointment — like curiosity about a new medication you read about, or an opinion on an upcoming trip you’re considering — be sure to bring them to the appointment. And if your doctor 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 the doctor know; perhaps he or she can provide further clarification or comfort. The goal is to leave your appointment feeling heard by your doctor and ready for the next steps.

At the end of your visit, there should be “action items” covering what needs to be followed up on. This can include blood tests or X-rays, visits to another doctor, or changing medications.

Before leaving, take the time to make sure you and your doctor are aligned on what will be happening following the appointment. Should you schedule a follow-up visit, or will the office call you? Who will schedule that X-ray? Has the new medication or refill been called into the pharmacy? Will you be notified of the results of those blood tests, or do you need to call the office? The more specific, the better.

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