Harvard Health Letter

Top 6 ways to get the most out of your doctor visit

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Make a list of questions in advance and then be sure to ask them at your doctor visit. Bring a friend along to act as another set of ears.

It makes a difference when you prepare ahead of time, ask questions, and recap what was discussed.

It's easy to feel rushed at a doctor's appointment or unsure of the information and instructions you're given. But with a little preparation you can become your own health advocate and feel like you're getting the most out of your doctor visit.

"The medical system is complex and can be overwhelming. In order to get the best possible outcomes, it really helps to be an active consumer," says Dr. Karen Joynt, a health policy researcher and a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Use the following tips to take a more active role in your health care.

1 Prepare for the visit

How many times have you left a doctor's office only to think of a question you wish
you had asked during the appointment? To avoid that, make a list of questions in
he days leading up to your visit. The questions can be about something complicated, such as your treatment, or simple, such as whether you should get a flu shot, Dr. Joynt says. "Make sure you write down your questions. It's so easy to forget what you wanted to ask when there's time pressure and lots of things happening at once," she adds.

2 Share your symptoms

Volunteer information about your symptoms and other health concerns, even if you're not asked. "The physician needs to know why you're there and what's bothering you," Dr. Joynt says. "If it's a general follow-up, think about the things that are health issues for you. Are you struggling with insomnia, or feeling sad all of the time, or having more heartburn than usual?" The more information your physician has, the better he or she can get to the bottom of what's causing your ailment.

3 Ask questions

Don't hesitate to ask questions and voice concerns as they occur to you during the appointment. Dr. Joynt says patients often want to seem cooperative, and not appear pushy or ask what seems like a "dumb" question. "But remember, it's your body and you are the person who needs to understand the plan," she says. "It's far better to be pushy than not know what to do to take the best possible care of yourself. It's okay to say to your doctor, 'Wait, I want to make sure I understand what you're saying. This is important and I want to get this right.'" Make sure you write down the answers.

4 Bring a friend

Because appointments can be a little confusing at times, it helps to have an extra set of ears to pick up on instructions and other information. Dr. Joynt recommends bringing a friend, spouse, or adult child to an appointment. "It's not because you can't make your own decisions," she explains. "It's because it's just so hard to keep track of all the information. Having someone who can take notes and be your scribe can be helpful, because it can be overwhelming to hear news about a new diagnosis or complicated changes to your medications."

5 Bring medications

Dr. Joynt says everyone should have a current list of medications to show the doctor, but many don't. An upcoming appointment is a good reason to put your list together.

"It helps you get organized and helps the doctor understand what you're taking," Dr. Joynt says. "For example, your physician may not know that another doctor has started you on a new medication." Include the names of the medications, the doses, and the schedule of when you take those medications. Include vitamins, supplements (such as calcium), and over-the-counter medicines (such as heartburn remedies). Dr. Joynt adds that you could also simply put all of your pill bottles and other medications in a reclosable plastic bag. That's easier for you because you don't need to write down complicated names and doses.

6 Get a recap

Before leaving your appointment, ask for a recap. "Ask the doctor to repeat the instructions you're supposed to follow," Dr. Joynt advises, "and make sure you're both on the same page. Write things down, so you can remember what you talked about after the appointment." Finally, be sure you know how to contact your doctor's office if you have further questions. How are you supposed to let them know if the treatment is—or isn't—working? How do you get in touch with someone?