At the Doctor's Office: Four Expert Tips

Seventeen minutes—that’s about all the time you’ll have with your doctor during a typical visit, says Dr. Davis Liu, family physician and author of Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely: Making Intelligent Choices in America's Healthcare System.

And your doctor will probably interrupt you in 23 seconds.

“Yet in this brief amount of time,” he pointed out, “you need to get heard, since even in the 21st century, the most important tool doctors have to get the right diagnosis is taking a comprehensive and accurate history.”

Follow these tips from Dr. Liu to ensure your doctor gets the information he or she needs:

  1. Set the agenda.

    Briefly and concisely explain what you want to talk about — aiming for quality not quantity. The goal is not to cram in as many problems as possible in a visit but to get the most out of a visit by getting the right diagnosis and treatment. “A Mayo Clinic study found that patients remember less than half of what doctors tell them,” said Dr. Liu, “so simply raising too many problems in one visit isn't worthwhile if you can't remember what to do.”

  2. Prioritize your problems.

    Always list the most important problem first, using the 4 W’s to describe the problem. Not sure what is important? Researching your symptoms or problems online at Familydoctor.org or Medlineplus.gov to get a sense of what problems and concerns can be handled safely by home treatments and watchful waiting and what problems you must address with your doctor.

    • When: When did it start? How has the problem changed over time? When does it seem to occur? When was the last time you had the problem?
    • What: What activities, treatments, or behaviors seem to make the problem better, worse, or no different (this can include home therapies like taking over-the-counter medications, applying heat or ice, eating or not eating, going to the bathroom, movement, activity or lack of, etc., depending on the problem). What does the problem feel like? How would you describe the pain (i.e. sharp, dull, burning, gnawing, pressure-like, tight, achy, constant, increasing, comes and goes). What other problems or symptoms have you noticed?
    • Where: Where did the problem start? Did it move over time, and if so, where? Does the pain or condition move anywhere else in the body?
    • Why: Why the problem is important to you: “I want to make sure it isn't anything serious, like cancer or a heart attack”; “I wanted to make sure I don't need to take antibiotics, change my behavior, or forego my vacation”; “It’s interfering with my lifestyle”; “My wife/husband/family member is worried about my problem.”

  3. Describe your health background.

    This includes your past medical / surgical history, your family history, medications, vitamins and/or supplements you take, drug or food allergies (including symptoms and reactions), and your social history (marital status, lifestyle, and any unhealthy or healthy behaviors you engage in).

  4. Close the Visit.

    Use the acronym D.A.T.E:

    • What was the (D)iagnosis? If you aren't sure, have the doctor write it down. By law, specifically the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), patients have the right to see and copy their medical records.
    • Does your doctor require or recommend any (A)dditional testing, x-rays, or procedures, additional input from other doctors, usually specialists, important? Do you need a referral?
    • Are you clear what the (T)reatment plan is: starting or changing medication? Seeing a physical therapist? Do you need to exercise more?
    • Finally, when should you return for further (E)xaminations or (E)valuations —a few days, weeks, months, or a year for a follow-up visit? Who makes the appointment? What signs or symptoms should you look out for which would indicate that you need to be seen sooner?

    Updated: 5/2009