By Rich Brodsky, MD
“Anything else you want to talk about?” the doctor says while typing on a bright screen. We feel that itch in our brain, that little twinge of anxiety. We know there was something else we needed to discuss, but what was it? “No,” we reply while trying to digest the last bulk of information that was just thrown at us. Our medication changed again. We have to go get more tests. We don’t really know why, or when, but we can figure that out later.
All of us have been there at some time or another. Even when I, as a doctor, went to a surgeon to get my shoulder fixed, I left with more questions unanswered than I liked. Even when my wife came to my appointments (you know, in that lovely time before COVID shut down all visitation to the offices) we still came back to the car and shouted to each other: “Shoot, we forgot to ask about when I can drive again!”
This situation happens to everyone eventually. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are, how educated you are, or how detail oriented you are. Our health and medical decision making is a confusing and complicated subject. Not only can we forget to bring things to the doctor’s attention, but we can also have trouble remembering what they have instructed us to do. When should we get the blood work? How often do we take the new medicine? Why do I really need it?
Still, there are several techniques you can employ to maximize the amount of effort you can get from your doctor’s appointment. Here is a list of the top 7 things you can do to make sure all your questions are addressed while retaining as much information as possible:
#7 – Know Yourself
No, I don’t mean spiritually, although that is probably important too. In this case I am talking about your medical history…all of it. Have you ever noticed that when you go to the doctor they spend almost ¾ of the time in the room talking about everything that happened before your problem? They want to know about your past surgeries, all of your diagnoses, all your medications, and even how many times a week you have a beer. One way of making your appointment more efficient is to have all of those things ready to go so they can spend more time talking about what is bothering you NOW.
"The best advice is to write down or type a list of everything that has ever happened to you."
This includes your past medical problems, all the types of doctors you see (and who they are), all the medications you take, and anything else you can think of. Keep that list. Update it often. Then just hand a copy to the doctor when you show up. If you don’t need to spend 20 minutes trying to remember all your surgeries, you can talk about what you need from them today.
#6 – Know Your Problem
Now that you tackled all those silly old details, you need to discuss what you are feeling that brought you to the doctor. This may not be as important in your annual check-up, but it is still a good time to think about how you have been feeling. I can’t tell you how many times I have been with a patient and their family asking what is wrong only to receive vague details and shrugs. The more you can tell your doc what is going on, and what has changed recently, the better they can help.
Now this is your second list. When did the problem start? When do you feel this issue come up? All the time? Sometimes? What are you doing when it happens? What other symptoms come with it? Do you try something to make it better? Write all this down as much as you can. You can always refer to your notes in the office. All of us have left the office thinking: “Shoot, I forgot to mention…”
#5 – Have Your Loved Ones Look Over Your Lists
My wife comes with me to as many doctors’ appointments as she can. I am really lucky that way. She always remembers to bring something up that I forget. However, she has a job and sometimes she can’t be there. When that happens I always get her input on what I should talk about at my appointment.
Our loved ones sometimes can offer a perspective that we can’t see. They help take care of us. Sometimes they have questions on the best way to help with that. “Should my aunt change her diet?” “When is the next time my father needs to see the cardiologist?”
By looking over your lists, your close family (or friends who act like family) can help add questions to ask that will truly enhance your medical visit.
#4 – Bring a Pen and Pad
Now that you have handed your doc the list and discussed your problems, the hard part is done, right? Wrong. After listening to your concerns and pushing and prodding all of your body parts, it is their turn to talk. And they do…a lot sometimes. Doctors will talk about every one of your issues. They will try to explain to you what is wrong, and what is not wrong. What should we worry about, and what is not concerning? They will tell us to update our diets, keep a symptom journal, change the medication we are on, get some xrays or an MRI, and see 2 other specialists. Oh yeah, and make another appointment on the way out for 3 weeks from now.
Write everything down. All of that information is a deluge of facts, dates, instructions, numbers and sometimes complex medical terminology. Even if we don’t understand it all right now, it will be easier to figure it out later if we have a record of what they said.
#3 – Access Your Patient Portal
Electronic medical records (EMRs) are getting better and better every day. Most people think that the only thing it changes is that the doc is looking at screen instead of looking down at some sloppy handwriting, but it is so much more than that. This new wave of technology has made it possible for the office to keep everything organized much better, keep our history straight, share our stories with other specialists, and finally give US ACCESS!
Yes, the patient portal can be an extremely helpful tool. Most major medical systems have them. You can look up your medications, request a refill on your prescriptions, ask your doctor questions, see lab results, make or change appointments, and in some cases even see the note from your last visit. If we have some confusion about what happened at our appointment, the patient portal can be a great place to start.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always a perfect system. Not all portals are equal and some have more functions than others. Also, what you get out of a portal can only be as good as what is put into it. Physician notes are for doctors and sometimes are short and use jargon. Lab test results may just look like numbers, and you need someone to answer what they mean. All in all, it can be a maze of documents to look through.
#2 – If Possible, Bring the Real Thing
Like I said, my wife comes to my appointments when she can. I also go to hers. We always seem to remember different details about what was said at those visits and together we assemble a good picture of the encounter. If we bring someone with us, they can not only help bring up subjects that we forget, but they can also listen to the doctor’s instructions and recommendations. They will be able to help both give and receive information.
With the rise-fall-rise-fall pattern of COVID restrictions, this tip can be a little less reliable. Some office restrictions do not allow visitors except in the most extreme circumstances.
#1 – Get a MedCompanion™
All of the above tips come from my years of experience as a physician, my own experiences as a patient, and as a husband who sometimes has to care for my wife’s medical needs. In a perfect world we would be able to go to all of our loved ones appointments and have them lean on us for support.
But the world is not perfect. I want to be there for my father’s prostate cancer visits, but he lives in New Jersey. I want to go to my wife’s annual check-up, but I can’t take off of a shift from the ER. Even if I could, some offices do not allow family due to COVID.
This is where a MedCompanion would come in. A few weeks before an appointment, you can contact the service on their website. A staff member will call you and walk you through what you want to get out of the appointment. They will call your family (that you give permission to speak with), and listen to their concerns and questions.
On the day of the appointment, you open the phone app (don’t worry, they walk you through that too) and a MedCompanion pops up on the screen. They listen to the visit and take notes on your behalf. They bring up the questions you may have forgotten, or that your loved one asked. When it’s all done, they type up a summary which is always accessible electronically. Basically, they help with tips 3-7 above just like they were someone who came with you to the appointment.
For more info, watch the short video clip below and check us out at www.medcompanion.com