How to Have a Better Medical Visit

Our expert says a little planning can help you get more out of your appointment.

Have you ever visited your doctor, only to realize you’ve left the appointment without touching on what you came in to discuss?

It happens a lot. “Either that, or patients get through the bulk of their appointment, then, just as the doc is wrapping up, finally bring up the reason for the visit in the first place,” says Rick Evans, senior vice president and chief experience officer at NewYork-Presbyterian.

Whatever the reason, both patients and doctors can fall into habits that get in the way of a productive visit, not to mention a comfortable connection. And with physicians under more time pressure than ever — a typical wellness visit lasts about 20 minutes — it can sometimes feel as if it’s impossible to develop rapport in the exam room, never mind communicate on a basic level about serious issues.

Yet there are things doctors and patients can do to ensure that both parties leave satisfied — doctors, that they’ve delivered the best care possible, and patients, that they’ve truly been heard.

Set the agenda at the beginning of the exam. “At NewYork-Presbyterian, we train physicians to ask during the first two minutes of the appointment, ‘What are your major priorities today?’” says Evans. By making a list of your concerns at home, before you’re sitting on the table in a flimsy gown, you’ll be ready for your visit. “Far from being seen as pushy, many doctors I talk to wish patients would come with their questions already formulated,” says Evans. So bring a list with you, and take it out ASAP.

Try some company if you’re anxious about your visit. It can be a good idea to bring a loved one to a doctor visit, says Evans, especially if that person is involved in caregiving. For instance, if you’re nervous, it can be tough to take in what a doctor is saying; your loved one can take notes for reviewing. “Just be sure to let the doctor know that you want this person to be a part of the discussion,” Evans emphasizes. “A loved one can be a valuable source of information not just for the patient but for the doctor, too.”

Rick Evans

Speak up — in a nice way. “Doctors really want to know your overriding concerns or if they’re missing something,” says Evans. One reason: If you don’t feel heard by your doctor, you’re less likely to do what he or she says, treatment-wise. So if your physician is off and running, talking about prescriptions when you’re still worried about symptoms, interject yourself into the conversation with something neutral like: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have a question.” Repeat as necessary.

Don’t make a quick exit. It’s typical to end up with a piece of paper in your hand at the end of an exam, whether a prescription or a visit summary report, which tells you what you need to do when you get home. “Sometimes, these can be several pages long, making it tough to figure out what the next steps really are,” says Evans. He suggests asking your doctor: “What are the three or four key points that are most important here?” Then underline them for good measure. That way, both physician and patient walk away knowing that critical to-dos have been discussed and understood.

Kindness counts. In a time when healthcare is becoming increasingly complicated, it’s all too easy for patients and doctors to focus on frustrations they may feel with each other, and less common to express gratitude. But just as patients appreciate kindness and respect from their physicians, “doctors also appreciate a ‘thank you,’” says Evans. “Whatever the situation, we all get more results with kindness and appreciation than with anger and irritation.”