Going in for a medical appointment can be anxiety provoking for many people. You may worry about what the doctor might tell you, or you may not like the treatment plan you’re given. Whether you’re preparing for a first-time visit or scheduling a routine checkup, here’s how you can take charge of your health and make the most of your appointment.
Before your first visit with a primary care physician, there’s a lot of information you’ll want to gather. Be sure to take your previous medical records with you. (Some physicians ask that you drop this information off before your visit. If you have a digital copy, it’s best you drop it off in advance, so it can be downloaded and included in your chart.) Your medical record should include any previous diagnoses, treatments, imaging done of your body, laboratory results and immunization history.
It’s also helpful to know the dates of your screening tests and include a copy of the results. Screening tests include mammograms, bone density, colon cancer screening tests such as colonoscopy as well as results from blood work to check cholesterol. It’s also important to take a list of your medications including the dosages of the medications, or take your prescription bottles with you. Be sure to tell your doctor about over-the-counter medications you’re taking including supplements. Some supplements may interfere or sometimes duplicate the effect of prescribed medications. For example, some may affect the liver or kidney and others such as aspirin may cause thinning of the blood.
Family history is also becoming more important as genetic testing comes of age. If you have first-degree relatives with cancer, your doctor needs to know what kind of cancer it is and at what age they were diagnosed with it. It’s also important to obtain results from any genetic testing a family member has had. If a family member has other medical illnesses such as hypertension, cardiac disease or suffered a hip fracture, it’s important to know at what age the condition was diagnosed.
Before your appointment it’s important to take a moment to understand what you hope to get from your doctor’s visit. If this is a routine exam, your doctor will want to make sure you’re up-to-date on all your screening tests and immunizations. But if this is a visit to follow up on a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes, you’re doctor will want to check in with you to determine how well your condition is being controlled. If you check your blood pressure or blood sugar at home, keep a log and take that with you to your appointment. If your condition is not well controlled, you may have an explanation for why the current regimen is not working. You could be forgetting to take the evening dose of your medication, or not taking your diabetic medication because it makes you hungry. Or, perhaps you’re not taking your insulin because you’re worried about weight gain. Together, you and your doctor could develop a new strategy to bring your condition under control.
If you made an appointment to discuss a new problem, consider what information you’re hoping to gain. What outcome are you interested in? Do you want information about treatment, or are you looking for reassurance? It’s imperative that you communicate clearly with your physician concerns about your condition and how it’s affecting your life.
You should also describe your medical problem in a concise manner and include relevant details. For example: when the symptom initially began; a description of the nature of the pain, discomfort or the sensation you’re having and its location; and the relieving factors and the exacerbating factors for the symptom such as if you are taking anything over the counter for it, or you’re eating or avoiding certain foods to make it better. It’s also important to tell your doctor how it has affected your quality of life such as not being able to exercise or go to work.
Once your doctor sees you in the exam room, be sure to have an open and honest discussion. Most patients are reluctant to disagree with the doctor, so they won’t question or contradict the treatment plan. But it’s best when you’re honest with your doctor about the treatment plan, so you can discuss the best option for your circumstance. For example, if going to physical therapy isn’t practical, and you don’t follow through with appointments, this is a detail you should share with your doctor. Or, if a prescribed blood pressure medication is causing a side effect so you’ve stopped taking it, let your doctor know. There are a variety of blood pressure medications on the market that can cause known side effects, and the solution may be as simple as switching to a different drug.
And finally, don’t hesitate to bring notes with you—or take them—while you’re visiting with your doctor. There may be so much going on that you forget to mention details about a symptom, or ask an important question. And if your health condition is complicated, bring a friend or family member.
Rajina Ranadive, M.D., is a board certified internal medicine physician with the Annadel Medical Group. She is also the medical director of the Petaluma Post-Acute Rehab. She can be reached at (707) 763-0802.
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