Being organized before a doctor’s visit

During a recent visit with my doctor, she commented that I don’t act like her other patients during visits. She said it’s obvious I have spent a lot of time with doctors because I’m not nervous and uncomfortable around her or her colleagues. She also said I’m one of the only patients who comes in with a list of topics to discuss and takes notes during visits.

I didn’t know my behavior was abnormal, but I can see how someone could not be herself around a doctor. Doctors can be intimidating, even those with amazing bedside manners. It would be easy to be anxious and/or timid around them — especially when they’re wearing those impersonal white lab coats.

At the end of the conversation with my doctor, I asked her if there was anything I could recommend to my friends and family to help them be better advocates for themselves and their health. She said it would just be nice if others did what I do. So, in a nutshell, this is what I do:

  • Bring in a list of topics you want to discuss with your doctor to your visit. I usually start a list and add to it during the week before my scheduled visit.
  • If you have specific ailments, bring in a log of how often you’re experiencing the symptoms and a diary of relevant data. (e.g. If your stomach hurts, a diary of food and beverages you’ve been consuming.)
  • When the doctor says something confusing, immediately ask for clarification. I think doctors repeat the same advice so often that they forget it is the first time a patient is hearing it.
  • Write down instructions, advice, and comments from the doctor to help you remember what was discussed. Most importantly, write down notes about any prescriptions or diagnoses.
  • Call the doctor or the doctor’s nurse later if you have follow-up questions.
  • If you don’t trust your doctor, interview other doctors to find one you are comfortable seeing. Call and have your files transferred to the new doctor from your old doctor.

I found this notepad pictured above from Knock Knock that I think could be useful. I don’t use something this formal, but I can see how the prompts on the notepad could really be helpful. Being organized before, during, and after a doctor visit can go a long way toward reducing the stress of the visit so you can be a good medical advocate for yourself.

30 Comments for “Being organized before a doctor’s visit”

  1. posted by Chloé on

    Great tips! I’ve also started to be more organized with our doctors visits since we’ve been diagnosed with infertility. There are so many different doctors to see, each of them prescribes further examinations, scans, blood tests and such to do, it’s really easy to get lost. I’ve created a binder file with one pocket for the admin papers (ID, authorizations, etc.), one for the exams that we had to make once and for all, and one pocket for each treatement cycle we’ve done. I’ve already done that for our first intra-uterine inseminations, and since they didn’t work but my system did, I’ll keep it for the IVF! LOL
    I’ve also started to keep a file on my PDA with little medical tips, like the kind of food to eat in case of stomach flu, the name of the meds I take for XX problem (the kind that aren’t prescribed), the med I have to ask my doctor for because I know they work well for me for YY issue, the name of my folic acid supplement, etc. When I happen to go to the pharmacy during my errands, I can easily check that list and see if I’m missing something, and I never end up at the counter deperately trying to remember the name of a med (yeah, I should add a memory med to that list! LOL).

  2. posted by Janis on

    I also do all these things and usually receive the same positive comments about it. However, I have never had a doctor who really reads or listens to my symptoms. How do you ‘interview’ a new doctor? I never even get to talk to my own doctor on the phone — only voice mail and maybe the nurse (after leaving voice mail)?! Doctors who have received very positive reviews from friends are never taking new patients. Even fairly ‘new’ doctors fresh and excited after their internships are not ‘listeners’. Since I am a “woman of a certain age” the immediate diagnosis is menopause even though tests show that I am not there, yet, and none of my symptoms match that dianosis.

    Sorry for the rant! It has been frustrating to be a good patient but not find a good doctor to match!

  3. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I love my doctor! And now he has hired a nurse practioner I love too!
    I am dealing with multiple health issues this year and have had to take a more active approach. I make sure to voice my feelings and ask questions about treatment plans. You are right though, we cannot always remember everything so making notes, on paper or electronically helps!

  4. posted by Karen on

    Keeping a log is especially important when you are helping an ill family member. My sister came up with this idea, because I come from a large family and whenever one of our parents is hospitalized, we leave a notebook in the room with a list of medications, questions that need to be asked, etc. Whoever happens to be in the room when the doctor shows up can ask the questions, record the answers, and test results. It makes it easier to keep things straight among all the family members.

    I think it would also be helpful even if there weren’t a lot of people involved. It’s difficult to keep things straight when you are stressed or ill and the doctor is feeding you a firehose of information. If you are writing down what is said, it makes the doctor slow down and explain things better.

  5. posted by Azra on

    I have done the same thing of making a list when going to the doctor when I have specifics I want to discuss. Sometimes you have to dominate the conversation to get everything you want accomplished.
    I have interned at a doctor’s office where elderly people come in with a whole bag of medication and haven’t a clue why they are taking it. It is very frustrating for the patient’s family and the doctor as well. Taking notes and asking questions might seem like you are taking up the doctor’s time, but in the long run it will save both time later with unanswered questions and concerns about medication and diagnosis.
    Finding a new doctor is very challenging. Do your research and ask as many questions as you can when you do get to see the doctor. One time, I was pregnant with bronchitis and the doctor was treating me having never seen me. I did not stay at that practice.

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Janis — Before hiring a doctor, I always interview him or her. I call and tell the person who answers the phone that I’m looking for a new doctor and am interested in interviewing the doctor before scheduling a visit. Some doctors have “open house” hours, and so I’ll get a tour of the office from the practice manager in addition to the meeting with the doctor. Other doctors will just see me whenever they have an opening. The only time I haven’t done this is when I know I won’t have an on-going relationship with the doctor.

    Also, if I ever feel like I’m not being heard, I just say this to the doctor. Or, I’ll ask why an issue isn’t being addressed. My current doctor once said to me, “I can see why you’re worried about X, but Y and Z explain why you’re having a problem with X. What worries me is problem B because of C.” Just having her walk me through her train of thought helped me to understand that she was hearing me, but coming to a different conclusion than my non-medically trained brain had come to.

  7. posted by s on

    It’s often useful to bring in the label from each of your prescriptions, or at least a list of the name and dosage, since it’s difficult to remember it all and you want to be sure to get the right prescriptions and avoid taking incompatible medications. It might be good to keep a record of when you started taking each medication as well.

  8. posted by GayleRN on

    Bare minimum information to give EVERY healthcare provider is:
    Allergies with reactions. Many times what the patient considers a bad reaction is simply a known side effect.

    ALL medications with dosage and frequency. This includes Over the counter, caffeine, alcohol, and stuff that is illegal. Witholding information here can kill you.

    Complete medical history. Illnesses and surgeries.

    Location of any power of attorney. Who is this person and where are they located? This should actually be on file at your local hospital.

    All of this information can fit on one sheet of paper usually. It will save you a lot of time. The reason everybody you come in contact with at the hospital asks the same questions over and over is because we often get no answer or a conflicting answer. EMS responders are also trained to look at the refrigerator for information also.

  9. posted by Dorothy on

    Yes, S reminds us that it’s ESSENTIAL to take an up-to-date list of all meds, prescription, supplements, OTC, with you. I give the sheet to the doctor, and they file it in my folder. They’re always pleased and impressed. I even do this with my dentist and my dermatologist.

    I had a friend a number of years ago see a doctor for some symptom (can’t quite remember what it was). I suspected it might be related to her birth-control pill. I asked if she’d told the doctor she was taking an oral contraceptive. She looked at me rather sternly and said, “It’s none of his business!” Well, the reason to tell him is not for his curiosity or titillation. It’s so he has a more complete picture of what you’re putting into your body in case it has a bearing on your current condition!

  10. posted by alison p-h on

    I completely agree that being prepared is key when discussing your health issues. I have started putting together a “health” summary for my annual physicals. I document throughout the year the various health issues I have (e.g. cold sores- frequency & suspected cause, although the cold Canadian winters are the main suspect :)) I will list new vitamins added to the routine, any visits with specialists such as a dermatologist, and other personal medical issues. I give her a copy and keep one for my files. If I have not needed to visit my doctor in between physicals, I will not necessarily remember a health issue from 10 months past. I hope that my documentation can help identify patterns or symptoms of potentially a larger issue that can immediately (or over time) be proactively treated.

  11. posted by Andrea on

    The last time I went to the doctor was the first time I had all my info and questions I wanted addressed written down. I referenced it during my visit and got all my questions answered… made me wonder why I had never thought to do it before! I had always felt intimidated by doctors, but knowing what I needed answered since I had written it down and put thought into it made me more confident about the visit.

    Great advice!

  12. posted by Dawn F on

    Someone may have already suggested this, but my mom takes an expandable/accordion file with her to the doctor. She has a section for Test Results. After she has tests like bloodwork or a scan, she gets a paper copy of the results and files it in her expandable/accordion file along with documenting the basic information on a logsheet.

    This has been a huge help for her and her doctors because all test results are available on the spot (say if one doctor wants to see the results of another doctor’s testing) and greatly avoids repeating testing (saving money and time).

    Great topic today!

  13. posted by Jael on

    I’ve gone to dr appointments with all my documents and a list of questions for years! My ob/gyn used to just roll his eyes when I would pull out my list of questions and say something like “you and your lists!!”, but he always leaned back in his chair and gave me all the time I needed to get my answers. He’s retired now, and I really miss him.

    It’s even more important when dealing with elderly parents who might be clear one minute but incoherent with fever and infection the next. When my father was in and out of the hospital and multiple dr’s offices during his final illness, my sister, brother-in-law and I took copious notes and e-mailed them to one another. That way we all had a complete set on us at all times since we never knew which one of us would be with him and none of his doctors read each other’s notes in his chart let alone actually TALKED to one another even if they passed in the doorway of his room.

  14. posted by Grammie Linda on

    I agree that it is very important to write things down. Having dealt with cancer and then its metastisis for nine years, I have some advice:
    1. If you have a smart phone, use the Notes area of the appointment to write down concerns and questions. Then it is right with you, even if you forgot the paper.
    2. Write the answers in that same note section.
    3. Keep a list of current medications AND ALLERGIES in a memo on your smart phone. This is unbelievably handy, especially when in an emergency room not associated with your doctor’s practice–you are in pain and fuzzy and they keep asking those questions, and you can either hand it to the questioner or recite from the memo.
    4. Wjen dealing with something scary, or if you feel you may not get the answers you need, bring a friend. I bring a friend to every oncology visit (now my husband comes, since retirement), even though I have a fabulous, responsive doctor. This is particularly important for your first visit with your cancer doctor, for example. When dealing with something scary, you will remember even less of the conversation than normal. Make sure the friend will keep notes, or that you will.
    5. Feel free to bring a friend if you wish, especially a good listener and, if you are timid, a good asker. I knew that I had a good start with my oncologist when I brought FOUR friends to my first visit (they all asked to come), and the nurse beamed and said, “We’ll bring in as many chairs as you need.”
    6. If you start with the attitude that you and your doctor are a team and that you work together for your health, you are more likely to have the same response. I used to be so intimidated that it was hard to ask questions, and I generally forgot them as soon as I walked into the little room. I find that my attitude helps me feel more comfortable, and many people live up to expectations when you start that way. For a long time I would choose women as doctors because they generally (not always) listened better and didn’t intimidate me. That may be a place to start.

  15. posted by Mary on

    Nine years ago when I started having health problems I bought a notebook to write down questions; list symptoms – when they started, etc. and to write down what the doctor said to me. My doctor always asks now if we’ve covered everything that I had written down. Sometimes it has been easier to refer to my notes than the doctors. To me, it just made sense to do this. I like the accordion file idea! My doctor always gives me copies of my blood work.

  16. posted by Caroline on

    How do you take notes when you are sitting on the examining table? That’s my hurdle.

  17. posted by jen on

    A friend of mine recommends these to help you keep track:;Itemid=3

  18. posted by Judi on

    When my parents got to the point that we kids had to accompany them to doctors’ appointments, we put their health care powers of attorney and a list of family contacts in a sheet protector on the fridge, along with a list of meds for each of them AND the personal and insurance information (full name, SSN, insurance and RX numbers, the name and phone of the pharmacy for scrips — anything we know) We also kept a Ziploc bag right there to toss their medication bottles in, both for regular doctor visits and, sadly, for an ambulance run.
    Then (very much like Jael above) whoever went to the doctor sent meticulous e-mails to the other two of us detailing the conversations with the physician, changes in meds, etc.
    Now that my dad is in a dementia-care facility, we don’t have to do the same kind of day-to-day management, but we still do the e-mail thing to keep up with what’s new with him (because he’s obviously not reliable on whether the doctor saw him, did he take his meds, whatever). And all of us keep notebooks with major reports from the doctors and paper copies of the POA stuff.

  19. posted by ecuadoriana on

    This is a great suggestion! Bring a list, note book, tape recorder, whatever works for each person. I started doing this when my daughter was a year & a half old & diagnosed with a fatal illness (thank the heavens all turned out well & now I’m a grandmother!). Keeping track of medications, tests, symptoms, reactions, etc. helped me keep my sanity & faith during that stressful time. I’ve since started doing the same for my own health care.

    I have a friend with limited mobility issues. When she goes to the doctor her adult daughter comes along & video records the exam & the doctor instructions, conversations, etc. This came up because of a dispute one time about what she claimed she was told by a doctor & what the doctor denied saying.

    It IS intimidating to be sitting in a paper robe on a cold exam table illuminated by fluorescent lighting!

    Another thing is to make a simple summary of any chronic issues, medications/allergies, name of physicians, insurance info, end of life directives, etc that you can give copies of to those in your life who need that information. I was once found unconscious in my car- my wallet card had name/phone numbers of my emergency contact & medical issues so that I was able to get the care I needed immediately.

    One problem, though, about “interviewing” doctors is that often medical insurance plans force people to be in a certain “group” of doctors. There often isn’t a lot of wiggle room for being choosy. I’ve had a lot of friends complain about this problem with me. A long time ago, after a major battle with an insurance company I dropped all insurance plans & each month put that money into a savings account. This way I get to call the shots about my care & I have found that doctors will often charge me about half the cost they would have billed an insurance company! I pay cash/check. Their billing offices like that. Less paper work & insurance headaches for them & I don’t have to fight with the insurance company to fork over the money that I already gave them anyway! Everyone’s needs are different. This system has worked for us for 20years!

  20. posted by Annie on

    Before my last doctor’s visit. I decided to write my questions and concerns down in my moleskine notebook. It was definately a timesaver and technology proof since some offces frown upon using PDAs during a doctor’s visit.

  21. posted by JC on

    Great ideas. I would like to add that you also need to make the scheduling clerk aware of the various items you want to discuss at the time you are making the appointment. Patients are scheduled according to the illness and the time the Doc has scheduled for your visit is determined by what you have told the clerk. If you are scheduled for a “cold” and then come in with a long list of additional issues the entire schedule will be disrupted. Mentioning that you would like to spend an additional 10 minutes with the doctor for discussing several items would be very helpful and the Doc would also have a heads up of what you would like to address.

  22. posted by GayleRN on

    About the smart phone idea, while many people have them with them continuously, many facilities only allow their use in waiting areas. This is particularly true of critical care areas. While something is better than nothing, it can also be a problem.

    About taking a bag full of meds with you when you visit the hospital. This is an invitation to having that bag lost or stolen. You do not want to have to replace that 90 day supply out of your own pocket at a cost of sometimes thousands of dollars. Don’t bring that purse or wallet either.

  23. posted by Grammie Linda on

    I have never had anyone tell me not to uwswe my smart phone inside an exam room or at the hospital when I am just using it for information–I believe they don’t want you using the phone part.

  24. posted by Janis on

    Thanks, Erin for the tip about doctor’s “open house” — I’ve never heard of this before and will give it a try after Thanksgiving! Thanks to all for their comments and great ideas. With insurance restrictions on doctors and patients (re: ecuadoriana) it is important to be sure you are both happy with each other and that you don’t waste any time (either yours or the doctor’s) by not taking the best advantage of your appointment.

  25. posted by HelofaMess on

    For those with ipads/phones there’s a family medicine app where you can add things like immunizations, medicine, weight, height, dr visits etc. Can’t find it on the itunes store right now though I’ll keep looking.

  26. posted by Sooz on

    I can’t take notes & listen at the same time, so I go to the doctor’s with a list of written questions AND a small digital voice recorder. The recorder raises none of the issues that a smart phone presents, and only weighs about 2 oz. & it fits anywhere (it’s roughly 1.3 inches by 4 inches, and about 1/2 an inch thick).

    I always tell the doctor that I am using a recorder because I get anxious and won’t remember all that’s said (which is totally true), and have never had ANY doctor object to my using it.

    It’s very helpful to play it back for myself at home, and also helpful for any of my loved ones who may be involved in helping me make decisions – they don’t have to be there at the doctor’s office with me, and they can hear the exact conversation.

    I find the recorder invaluable – on one occasion I misunderstood the doctor during the office visit & walked out believing he’d said the OPPOSITE of what he’d really said – if I hadn’t made the recording, I would have been making an important medical decision based on my mistaken memory, which is a scary thought.

    And even when you are in the exam room in a flimsy gown, a digital voice recorder is small enough to hold in your hand or to put on a nearby surface to record throughout your exam.

  27. posted by Leah on

    Also, if there’s something your doctor frequently asks, come in prepared to answer. For example, the nurse at my doctor’s office always asks me for the start date of my last period. Therefore, I always have that information handy when I head into the office. Each time, she’s been surprised that I can answer immediately. I’m not sure why, as that’s something fairly easy for most women to figure out. I’ve got a little symbol I put in the corner of my planner day when my period starts, and a second symbol for when it ends. No one knows it but me, so it’s a subtle and easy way to keep track.

    I also bring in questions and concerns to the doctor on a sheet of paper, and I’m surprised that other people don’t too. What do they do — expect the doctor to figure things out just by looking?

  28. posted by Michael Clark on

    Create a text document in your word processor. Include dates, places, and doctors’ names of major medical events (surgeries, pregnancies, ER visits). Include the full street address of hospitals and doctor’s offices. Include voice and fax numbers.

    Include a list of allergies, and what your reaction is to the medicine or food. If you have no known allergies, say that.

    Include a page that has all of your current medication, with dosage, and with the reason you’re taking the medicine. Include over the counter medicine if you take it regularly.

    Include a page that has your regular/annual medical appointments (dentist, eyes, ob/gyn, primary care physician) and list the date you last saw that doctor.

    Update all of this regularly, do not let it get out of date. Then print the entire thing out and take it with you when you go to a doctor. Then if they ask a question, you’ve got the info with you. It’s also *very* helpful when you change insurance, or doctors and have to fill out the questionnaire at a first appointment.

    Include your insurance info in the document, either retype it all, or scan it and place the image in the doc.

    If you’re feeling brave/secure about sharing your medical info, make a PDF of the document, and email it to a web based email address, or send it to your emergency contact/parents/children/close friend. If you have a MedicAlert necklace/bracelet, put in the emergency instructions how your complete medical history can be accessed. When an ER calls MedicAlert, MA can tell the ER how to access the info.

  29. posted by Deb on

    Just want to reiterate what JC said about scheduling enough time to ask your questions. At my doctors practice, they have three length appointments. They run late for two reasons
    a) Emergencies (no-one begrudges them these)
    b) People who book a very short appointment, and then want to stay and chat.

    I had an interesting conversation with a booking manager at a different practice, and apparently there, if you do this, you get a mark put in your file, so that you get put lower on the totem pole when you call to request your next appointment. To be clear – if you request a long appointment, and use it, the practice are happy to book you in first next time, it’s just if you book at 10 minute appointment and take 55 mins that they have issues.

    You’re also then the one that made everyone else wait – and no-one wants to be that person!

    Would also like to stress the importance of a diary entry to follow up on blood and other tests. In most cases, if there’s an issue, the practice notice and will contact you, but sometimes it slips through the cracks. If you have any form of testing done, ask when the results will be ready, and put a reminder in your diary to call in for the results. It might only take five minutes, but it’s a good investment of your time!

  30. posted by WilliamB on

    Even though I’m an excellent doctor visit buddy for someone else, I don’t so as good a job when I’m the patient. If something major comes up I look for a buddy.

    All wireless and mobile phones “reach out” when they’re on (and sometimes when they’re off!), even if you’re not using those functions. So hospitals, etc., are correct in banning them from critical care rooms even if you’re not on the phone or the web. That is, assuming that they’re correct that the wireless functions could interfere with hospital monitors.

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