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7 Ways to Make the Most of Your Doctor Visit

Physicians give their best advice on how to get their best advice

En español | How to Talk to Your Doctor: Experts share their best tips on how to talk to your doctor, make sure your concerns are heard and get the best care on your visits.

Patient shakes hands with doctor, Doctor Visit Tips

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Keep the line of communication open with your doctor.

Your relationship with your doctor is all about your health, of course, but it's also about mutual trust, communication and understanding. The better you two get along, the more satisfying your relationship, and that's good for your health. An analysis of 13 studies in the journal PLOS ONE found that people with conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoarthritis and asthma did better when they worked together with their doctors. How can you establish such a relationship and keep it on track? Here's what some top doctors recommend.

1. Hey, look at me

Electronic medical records, the digital version of a handwritten chart, have become the new normal at office visits. Unfortunately, some doctors spend more time gazing at the computer screen than looking at you. If you talk to your doctor's back and he answers as he types, both you and he lose an important part of the relationship, says Robert Eckel, M.D., professor of medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado, Denver. "A doctor who focuses on the screen while talking to a patient is communicating ineffectively," he says. "A doctor should look directly at a patient when he's providing important information about the visit." If your doctor is not, try saying, "I'd feel more comfortable if you looked at me while we talked."

2. Try good manners

Generally, your doctor will take the first step in building rapport, but you may need to take on some of the responsibility for strengthening the relationship. "Doctors are human, and sometimes they need a little attention, too," says Harlan Krumholz, M.D., professor of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. "A kind word or showing interest in your doctor can go a long way toward strengthening the personal tie between you." The more you and your doctor relate to each other on a personal level, the more satisfied you'll both be, Krumholz says. And that's healthier for you, too.

3. Be the squeaky wheel

If you raise a question about your illness that stymies your doctor, don't just nod and let the matter drop. Speak up. Ask if she can follow up and find the answer or if she'd rather refer you to a doctor who routinely deals with this problem. You may feel uncomfortable about suggesting an appointment with another doctor, but it's a reasonable request and it's better for both of you that you propose it rather than leave the office feeling annoyed.

4. Make your priorities clear

When your doctor recommends a medical procedure or nonemergency surgery, he'll provide you with basic information and perhaps a brochure, but you need more than one-size-fits-all information before you decide on a course of action. Ask him if you can schedule a short follow-up call or an email to give you time to think it through, suggests Richard A. Stein, M.D., professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. What may matter to you is how long it will take to heal, when you can go back to work, if you can continue with your favorite sport, whether you can still live independently and if there are any alternatives to what he suggested. Talking with him about what's important to you can help you decide what to do — and it's one of the most valuable conversations the two of you will have.

5. How can I reach you?

Getting in touch with your doctor between appointments can be frustrating, so find out which method works best if you have to reach her about something important. Doctors have different likes and dislikes when it comes to getting back to patients. Does she prefer email, leaving a message with her nurse, or voice mail? Does she answer calls during her lunch break or after office hours? Does she routinely pick up messages from her answering service? If you use the method she likes best, you're more likely to be in touch with her sooner rather than later.

6. Start with your main concern

Start the conversation at your next appointment with the problem that concerns you most, rather than listing all of them at once. For openers, say, "I'm really worried about (fill in the blank) and I'd like to know what you think." Putting your main worry up front gives you the time to focus on it, says Lisa Schwartz, M.D., professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. If you haven't covered all your concerns and time is running short, ask your doctor if he'd like to hear the rest now or prefer to follow up by phone. "That way, your doctor will know that you have unanswered questions and the two of you can decide on the best way to handle them," Schwartz says.

7. Provide some background

If your medical history is complicated and you have an appointment with a new doctor, bring along a one- or two-page summary of recent tests and treatments so she can get up to speed quickly. Even if your records were transferred to her office before your appointment, she may not have had a chance to read them thoroughly. Providing a short version with only the highlights and test results for the last six months or year will save time and may help you avoid repeat tests and imaging. There are no hard-and-fast rules about format; you can be creative and draw a time line or prepare a list of talking points.

Nissa Simon is a frequent contributor on health issues to AARP Media.

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