6 Steps to Get the Most Out of Your Doctor Visits
As I sit in the waiting room, for what seems like the hundred-millionth time, my stomach is tied up in knots. Of course, my doctor is running behind. I try not to get agitated, as I know he is more-than-likely spending valuable time with other “complicated” patients like me, but the increased wait time is agonizing. A medical assistant’s footsteps are heard echoing down the hall. With a chart in her hands she calls a patient’s name. My heart skips a beat, and as someone else’s name is called, my anxious heart pounds away. After what seems like a decade has passed, my name is called and my husband and I follow the medical assistant to my assigned appointment room.
It is well-known within the chronically ill community that the appointment room is just another waiting room in disguise. I sit in the exam chair across from my husband with so many butterflies in my stomach it feels I might take flight. My mind is buzzing with thoughts, questions, and, of course, worries. Will Dr. such-and-such take my symptoms seriously? Will he believe me when I tell him that healing can be achieved, and we just need to keep digging? Will he throw his hands up in the air and quit on me, like other doctors have in the past? Am I prepared? Do I even know what to say or ask?
Dodging my husband’s gaze and staring at the wall in front of me, my eyes begin to well up with tears. Then I remember what I just asked myself. Am I prepared? This is what I aim to help you with today: being prepared, feeling confident and achieving a good outcome at the end of every doctor visit. Since the day I asked myself that all-important question and formulated a game plan for each appointment, my confidence has grown, and I no longer obsessively fear the waiting rooms in my future. These are the 6 tips that took me from underprepared to professional patient.
1. Ask Your Q’s, Get Your A’s
Last year following an appointment, I found myself sitting on the floor of an AirBnB as I threw my head in my hands and wept. It had been an exhausting and disappointing day at the specialist’s office. My mother and I had traveled to Massachusetts all the way from Oklahoma for five days of appointments, and this was the end of day four. It wasn’t looking hopeful. I had tried all week to communicate my symptoms and thoughts to my doctor, and had seemingly gotten nowhere. Each time I would try to say something intelligent and thought-provoking, it came out as desperation in the form of an ugly blob of feelings — not much for the doctor to work with. After a good cry I decided to write out a script for my next morning’s visit. I made sure to include every question I had for my doctor, as well as every idea I had to contribute concerning my treatment. Script in hand, I walked into the exam room confident that my voice would be thoroughly heard.
If the name of the game is preparedness, then making a list of questions is the resounding chorus! Whether you’ve got the memory of an elephant or a houseplant, we all need to be able to use our appointment time wisely. So before you even venture to your local hotspot (read also: clinic or hospital), make a list of all of the questions you want to ask your doctor. Do you have any symptoms you want to ask about? Any questions about a medication? Heard of a new treatment that you might want to consider? Take time and really think this through because, as you very likely know, your face-to-face time with your doctor is the time that you have his or her most focused attention. Emails and phone calls after the fact are a last resort, and coming prepared will save you time, confusion, and the emotional anguish of sitting on the phone listing to awful hold music.
And for bonus points (aka: your sanity), pack a pen and paper or a handy cell phone app to jot points down during your visit. With chronic illness it is common to cover many topics during one office visit, and receiving so much information at once can be overwhelming! Let your doctor know at the beginning of the appointment, that not only have you written down thoughts to share, but that you will also be taking notes during your visit because you greatly appreciate his/her willingness to hear your voice concerning your care. Which leads me to...
2. Have an Attitude of Gratitude
As the old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” the same goes for each doctor visit. Your doctor starts his or her days early, probably ends his or her days late, is rushed in-between, and cares for patients who are desperate for healing all day. This would weigh anyone’s cheery disposition down! When your doctor opens the door to your appointment room, have an attitude of gratitude. Letting them know that you greatly appreciate their willingness to hear you out, answer your questions and treat you, is more likely to lead to a successful visit. I have found that telling doctors that you value their time goes a long way! Praising them for what sets them apart is also crucial in fostering a good partnership. For example, I always make a point to tell my specialty eye doctor, that I greatly appreciate his understanding of the fact that I know my body best, how he trusts that I am well-versed concerning my disease, and how he allows me the opportunity to tell him my thoughts on possible options for treatment. Be genuine, offer a gracious tone, and you will see how much more you can achieve out of each visit.
3. Speak Up: Positive, Polite, Professional, Persistence
Okay so we’ve got the gratitude thing covered, and now it’s time to self-advocate. When diagnosed with a chronic illness, you are in it “for the long haul,” and learn quickly that self-advocacy and persistence are both key in managing your health. This is no less true before, during, or even after your doctor visits! And persistence can look different from one patient to the next. Whether it’s positively and politely asking as many questions as you have, offering your insight into new treatments that you might want to explore, daily calling to check on a waitlist to get in and see your next specialist, or calling your insurance company with the determination of a champ, your persistence is going to make a huge difference in the care that you receive. Remember, you know your body best, and your doctor has studied and worked tirelessly to earn their title, so together, there’s potential for a great partnership. The key to healthy self-advocacy is persisting with a positive, polite, and professional disposition. This type of persistence during and even after your appointment will yield beneficial results.
4. Bring Your Quarterback, Not the Whole Team
Like many of you, my chronic illness is so “special,” that I travel many miles to see a specialist. Going solo to visit a doctor in your hometown is daunting enough; let alone across the country! Add the element of facing air travel and possibly weeks spent separated from the ones you love to the mix and you have a recipe for quite the breakdown. For these reasons I always bring my closest companion with me on my medical trips and doctor visits. For me, this is either my husband or mom. Bringing “your person” adds a sense of calm, familiarity, and sometimes most importantly, a healthy distraction.
This trusty companion also serves the all-important purpose of being another ear in the room of your appointment, as well as an advocate for your care. Many times my husband or mom will catch something I missed during the appointment or will be able to speak for me if I am overwhelmed in the exam room.
Now, a single confidant in the exam room is one thing, but any more folks than that could create a sense of “ganging up” on your doctor. Don’t open your appointment up to too many differing voices creating an air of confusion. This is not to say that the rest of your team does not play a valuable role in your care! I may travel to my doctor visits with my “quarterback,” but the remainder of my team is at home praying for me and encouraging me daily with check-ins, encouraging texts, and hopeful social media posts...I’m looking at you, #peoplehopetribe!
5. Sing “Bye, Bye, Bye” As Necessary
While some doctors are so knowledgeable, genuine, and caring that they deserve to be praised with the adorations of an *Nsync love song, you might need to jam out to “Bye, Bye, Bye” with a few underwhelming docs in order to get there. They’re not all winners who will welcome your list of questions or meet your attitude of gratitude with genuine care. Some will become frustrated with your persistence, no matter how polite or appropriate you may be. So at the first roll of the eyes, look into changing to a new doctor. There are other specialists and doctors who might be a better fit for you, and if you’re able to venture out to find someone new, don’t hesitate!
This isn’t always an option, and sometimes, between insurance restrictions or just the lack of specialists in your area, you might have to “Love the One You’re With.” In this case, keep using the other tips, and might I recommend keeping Selena’s “Kill ‘Em With Kindness” on repeat?
6. Have Some Fun While You’re at It
As mentioned earlier, many of us travel to see our beloved specialists. Being away from home can make you feel uneasy and vulnerable, adding to the anxious undertone of your visit. Instead, make your out-of-town experience memorable and fun! One benefit of seeing an out-of-town specialist, is that they are often located in large, interesting cities offering plenty of free parks, gardens, and museums. Even if you are only in this new place for a day or two, you can still hit up a few “must-sees.” Often, “my quarterback” and I will ask my doctor or nurse where the best restaurant is or where the best walking trails are. These are two great options of things to do in-between my appointments, allowing me to de-stress before my next one.
Allowing yourself this down time, even if just to eat lunch at the best burger joint in town, will give your mind a chance to decompress and lift your mood. Changing your perspective and choosing to see the positives within your unique chronic illness will open your mind and will allow for a positive exam room atmosphere!
And just like that you’re ready to hit your local clinic, fully prepared to maximize your visit and rock some confidence while you’re there. I’ll be thinking of you the next time I sit in that waiting room next to “my quarterback,” armed only with my list of questions, pen and paper, an attitude of gratitude, and a determination to have some fun. We’re in this together, and now we’re all a lot more prepared, too!
Written by: Tarah Foster
Who doesn’t love a personal trainer whose fave food list includes pizza and ice cream? Yes, Tarah’s a girl we can all relate to, she’s an incredible member of our Tribe, and we love her for it! You can find her with a cup of herbal tea, cozied up with her cat, Bernard, while she paints abstract art, but her real “happy place” is anywhere near the ocean where she can be closer to the dolphins and marine life that make her heart soar. Through her journey with Corneal Neuralgia and severe dry eye, Tarah’s learned to live with chronic pain and is wildly passionate about sharing the lessons that she’s learned along the way! We’ll listen to her beautiful insights any day, and are honored to stand in the Tribe with this awesome chick!
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