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The Incredible Shrinking Doctor's Appointment

In case you haven't noticed, your time is limited. Here's how to use it wisely.

By Sally Kuzemchak, R.D.

The Incredible Shrinking Doctor's Appointment

After waiting two months to get on the physician's calendar, 15 minutes looking for parking and what feels like forever flipping through old magazines in the reception area, you'll likely get just 11 minutes of face time with your doctor, according to research from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. With double-booked office schedules, fewer physicians and insurance companies demanding shorter appointments, "Doctors are stretched thin," says Jim King, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "So the time you get with yours needs to be quality." Read on to learn how to make the most of those minutes.

Before Your Visit

When scheduling your appointment, be sure to tell the office assistant why you're coming in, whether it's for an annual checkup or a specific health problem. This could actually affect how much time they block out for you, says Patricia Agnew, author of How to Talk to Your Doctor: Getting the Answers and Care You Need (Quill Driver Books). Then do a little prep work: A lot of precious time during appointments is spent taking or updating your health history. Ask the receptionist if she can send you forms to fill out ahead of time or if you can download them from the Web. Or create your own document by writing down the medications and supplements you take (include name, strength and dosage), any drug allergies, past surgeries, basic family history and current diagnoses. Your doctor can scan it quickly and move on to your immediate concerns.

Next, organize your thoughts by making a list of your health questions or complaints. Consider this your "agenda" during the appointment, says Barbara M. Korsch, M.D., coauthor of The Intelligent Patient's Guide to the Doctor-Patient Relationship: Learning How to Talk So Your Doctor Will Listen (Oxford University Press). "You wouldn't go into any other important meeting without a plan, so be prepared," she says. If you have a chronic issue, keep a detailed record (at least three days) of your symptoms and when they occur. For example, if you have indigestion, write down when it happens, how long it lasts and what foods and drinks you had that day. Have chronic pain or discomfort? Jot down when it happens, what makes it better or worse, and what it feels like (such as throbbing, burning or aching), says Kim Alumbaugh, M.D., an ob-gyn in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky. The morning of your appointment take an eyebrow pencil and literally draw a circle around where the pain is—so your doctor doesn't have to spend time poking around. Finally, do some research ahead of time on your symptoms or condition. You'll be informed and won't have to ask basic questions.

During Your Appointment

Your doctor is busy—and unfortunately, you're bound to feel a little rushed once he enters the room. "Doctors are pressed for time, so they're focused on getting to an endpoint," says Dr. King. In fact, research has found that physicians interrupt their patients within the first 18 to 23 seconds of speaking, so it's crucial for you to be concise and avoid rambling. "Have your opening statement ready," says Agnew. For instance: "I'm having pelvic pain and am worried I might have fibroids" or "I fell and hurt my knee, and I think I may have torn a ligament." In your statement (make it one or two sentences tops), explain not only what the problem is but also why you're worried about it. If you have multiple issues to discuss, mention that in your opening statement as well by saying, "There are three things I want to talk about today," so your doctor doesn't spend the whole time on the first problem.

If you are interrupted while explaining your problem, quickly redirect your doctor. "It might help if I told you the rest of the story first" is assertive—but still polite. You also shouldn't shy away from stopping your doctor if he's speaking a language you can't understand. "Doctors live in the world of medical jargon," says Dr. King. "You should always feel comfortable interrupting and asking what something means."

Another option to consider, especially for appointments that involve a lot of new information: Take along to your appointment a family member or friend who can help interpret the doctor's advice, brainstorm questions or take notes. "A lot of patients get very nervous and anxious in the exam room, so having someone there can help," says Dr. Alumbaugh.

Before You Leave

To save yourself a follow-up call later, ask for clarification on anything that still seems unclear and be sure you fully understand the doctor's advice, including whether you should be looking out for any symptoms and whether you need to call the office for test results. If the information you've been given seems confusing, ask if the office has a handout you can read at home or if your doctor can point you to a reputable Internet resource. If you're still fuzzy on anything—but your doctor has moved on to the next patient—ask to speak with a nurse or medical assistant.

And most important, avoid asking what doctors call the dreaded "doorknob question" at the end of your appointment. "People often wait until the doctor is halfway out the door before they bring up the most pressing thing on their minds," says Dr. Korsch. Usually, it's something patients are embarrassed to bring up at the start (incontinence and sexual dysfunction top the list). Trouble is, you're not likely to get much quality time to discuss it. Instead, put this question at the top of your agenda. "These are things doctors treat day in and day out," says Dr. King. "So there's no reason to be embarrassed."

Top Five Time Wasters

Stay away from these common exam room time traps:

Small talk: A quick exchange about the weather is okay, but going on and on about topics unrelated to your health isn't.

Miscellaneous gripes: The lack of parking, chilliness of the waiting room or meager magazine selection is probably not in your doctor's control, so don't bring them up. The same goes for complaints about doctors you've seen in the past.

Billing/insurance questions: When checking in for your appointment, ask who in the office can address those concerns. It's not your doctor.

Irrelevant medical info: Though your family's medical history is important, stories about your friend's health problems won't help the doc treat you.

Little white lies: No one likes to admit they forget to take their medicine, don't exercise or drink too much, but not answering your doctor's questions truthfully will make it harder for her to effectively treat you.

Always Worth a Mention

Chronicling every little ache and pain you experience will eat up the clock, but some symptoms should always be brought to your doctor's attention. "Any significant change to your well-being warrants mention," says Jim King, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. The following are some examples:

Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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