Once you’ve gathered referrals, done your research, and scheduled an appointment with a new primary care physician, how do you get the most out of this relationship? Remember, your doctor is the clinician who should know you best and holistically.
They make the primary diagnosis. They are the ones who will cut through the healthcare system clutter and ease your way into the best appropriate specialties and hospitals. They will even help you save money. Developing a good, solid relationship with this person is the best start or foundation of your healthcare experience.
Your doctor is your teammate and advocate. And no, this isn’t a fantasy; it can be a reality, and one you can achieve without bribing your physician with candy, flowers, or a bottle of Maker’s Mark. If you’re educating yourself, being proactive about your health, and providing the right information, you can establish the kind of relationship that is healthy for you both physically and financially.
The process is like any other valuable relationship: simple if you approach it with the right mindset and effort, but not necessarily what we’ve typically done with healthcare professionals. The keys to success are preparation, clear two-way communication, and clear goals. On average, you’ve got eight minutes per visit with the doctor. Your goal is to efficiently communicate your ailments and expectations. Let’s review some tips on how to maximize that experience and develop a relationship with your doctor.
How to Prepare for an Appointment
Be organized. Studies have shown that patients who filled out a detailed checklist asked more questions during their doctor visit and got more satisfaction with the visit. The checklist should include accurate information, dates, times, and circumstances about your symptoms, your health record (including any and all medications you are taking), and a list of questions you wish to cover. Prioritize the questions by their importance.
Use SBAR to Communicate Confidently
Read this sentence twice to truly get it in your head: it’s your responsibility to communicate effectively with your doctor. You have to be organized when it comes to your own health. Stephen Covey wrote that to effectively communicate, both parties have to “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Understanding the doctor’s environment sets you up to further prepare your discussion with them.
What better way to prepare is there than understanding how they are trained to communicate with themselves? Many physician practices and hospitals use a technique called SBAR (Situation Background Assessment Recommendation). It was developed by the Navy for use in nuclear submarines to enhance efficient communication. Staff and physicians use SBAR to share patient information in a clear, complete, concise, and structured format and to improve communication, efficiency, and accuracy.
Here’s the framework and how it relates to you:
- Situation: Take ten seconds to explain (your reason for the appointment)
- Background: Provide context and data (your medical health record)
- Assessment: Describe the specific problem/situation (doctor’s diagnosis)
- Recommendation: Explain what you want to do and when (course of treatment)
Try not to get emotional or engage in non-essential stories. Stick with the facts! Also, don’t withhold information on embarrassing symptoms, issues, or cost concerns that are causing fear. Without that information, the doctor can’t help you.
By being prepared and fact-based, the two of you will have more time to focus on your issues and questions. You have to be concise, organized, objective, and precise.
Here’s a tip: take an advocate with you to the appointment who can make sure you cover your situation and key questions. They can also be another set of ears to listen to the doctor’s diagnosis and course of treatment. Take notes during the appointment and ask for a summary of the appointment from your doctor outlining their diagnosis and treatment plan. This can often be accessed online as well.
Good Questions to Ask
Looking for some assistance in developing good questions to ask your doctor? The US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, has included on its website a “tips and tools” section on what to do before during and after your appointment. Sample questions are:
- What is the test for?
- How many times have you done this procedure?
- When will I get the results?
- Why do I need this treatment?
- Are there any alternatives?
- What are the possible complications?
- Which hospital is best for my needs?
- How do you spell the name of that drug?
- Are there any side effects?
- Will this medicine interact with medicines that I’m already taking?
- What is my diagnosis?
- What are my treatment options?
- What are the benefits of each option? What are the side effects?
- Will I need a test? What is the test for? What will the results tell me?
- What will the medicine you are prescribing do? How do I take it?
- Are there any side effects to this medication?
- Why do I need surgery? Are there other ways to treat my condition?
- How often do you perform this surgery?
- Do I need to change my daily routine?
The Bottom Line
Your healthcare is not a game. Instead of approaching visits with a chip on your shoulder or with confusion, go in confident and prepared. Build a mutually respectful relationship with them, one in which you communicate openly and concisely.
And don’t just get to know your doctor; establish relationships with their nurses and their administrative staff, too, because they’re the gatekeepers.