10 tips for a productive doctor visit

When you go to the doctor, do you feel like she or he listens to your heart and lungs (hopefully, with your shirt off) — but doesn’t really listen to you?

Most doctor visits last just 13 to 16 minutes. And studies show that doctors only let patients speak for about 23 seconds, on average, before cutting them off. In fact, in a study at University of South Carolina, primary care doctors cut off patients just 12 seconds after entering the exam room. Considering it was in South Carolina, where speech is measured and slower, that’s not even one-fifth of a “New York minute.”

The study also presents quite a contrast to low-tech medicine, when physicians like Sir William Osler (often considered the “father of modern medicine”) said the patient will tell you the diagnosis, if only you listen.

Similarly, in the traditional practice of homeopathy, practitioners may listen and talk to the patient for one or two hours. It’s all about understanding the individual symptoms of both mind and body. Not just placing every patient into a one-size-fits-all category, only to send them away with the pre-established prescription for their condition.

Today, with minimal doctor-patient dialogue, patients leave the office frustrated. They also leave the office at greater risk of receiving a wrong diagnosis. So, to get the most out of your doctor visit, consider using these 10 approaches:

  1. Break the ice Don’t be afraid to ask your doctors how they are doing, for a change! You can also break the ice with a personal greeting or even a joke. I get the feeling my own doctors appreciate my medical humor, at least as a distraction from the routine. Fortunately, I am now more likely to leave them in stitches, than vice versa.
  2. Ask for privacy If there are other staff persons in the room, don’t be afraid to ask for a minute alone with the doctor. You both may feel more comfortable asking intimate and probing questions.
  3. Keep to the script Like a good actor, you should even practice your lines and jot down bullet points with questions. You can even type them up, print them out, and let your doctor look them over — like I do. This technique will help you stick to the point (even while they are sticking you) and avoid talking about things not related to your medical concerns, as it takes away time and attention. Last, don’t leave any big questions for the end of your visit. Once your doctor is heading out the door, she or he is already thinking about seeing the next patient.
  4. Use medical language If you correctly use words like bowel movements, diarrhea, incontinence (which you can do as a reader of this column), it will save time and help maintain efficient and effective communication with your doctor. If you have a new problem that has arisen since your last visit, make sure to emphasize what has changed. Don’t accept that it is just another sign of “aging.” You may require additional tests or examinations.
  5. Don’t be afraid to discuss money Be upfront with your doctor in terms of money, time and other constraints. As I have reported before, doctors may not realize the additional costs of certain prescriptions, tests or procedures. The costs also vary wildly between different locations and insurance plans (as I have reported, for example, on the crazy situation with colonoscopies). You may not be able to afford doing everything your doctor suggests, at first blush.
  6. Be honest Honesty is the best policy. Especially when talking to your doctor. So pretend you’re acting in your own courtroom drama and promise to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” That includes fears, substance abuse, sexual problems, or changes in sleep patterns. Also, be honest about your ability to make major changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle. That way the doctor knows of your limitations and can offer alternatives. There may be more than one way to go when it comes to lifestyle modifications suited to each individual. If you want their views on an “alternative” mind-body therapy, take my short “emotional type” quiz and review the results with your practitioner.
  7. Bring support Bring a family member or close friend to help you present what you need to say, and understand what you are being told. Especially if dealing with a serious diagnosis or complication, it can be upsetting. Many people emotionally shut down during medical discussions. A companion can help. Ask them to take notes, so bring a clipboard with notepaper.
  8. Ask questions and look for answers Ask your doctor for printed materials that can help explain your situation. Especially when it comes to necessary drug prescriptions, for example.
  9. Ask about generic drugs When it comes to managing blood pressure and/or blood sugar, always ask your doctor about using a generic drug — like I do. Generic drugs cost less. Plus, they’ve stood the test time to uncover all the side effects (often hidden during the FDA drug approval process). Even though your doctor transmits dosage information to the pharmacist, who will then review everything with you again, make sure you’re clear on the dosage.
  10. Your doctor, your choice Finally, if your doctor won’t take time to listen to you, it’s time to look for another physician. No matter what the government does or doesn’t do when it comes to healthcare insurance, you can always “repeal and replace” your own doctor.

I’ll give you even more suggestions about getting the most out of your doctors in the upcoming June issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. So if you aren’t already a subscriber, click here to sign up today.