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Healthy Outlook

Preparation, communication key to a good doctor's visit

By Dr. Roger Barrow

Friday, July 19, 2013

A good visit with your doctor enlightens you about your health and contributes to your peace of mind. But obstacles to that good visit abound, despite your doctor's good intentions.

Time limitations, the challenge of translating medical jargon, and now the presence of the computer in the exam room can contribute to frustration, particularly for patients with multiple chronic issues who depend upon a strong rapport with their doctors to maintain their health.

After seeing patients in my practice for 35 years, I believe the best way to get the most out of your visit is to employ a little forethought.

A good doctor's visit begins with a list. Write down your concerns before your appointment, and rank them. These notes reduce the chance that you'll forget to ask a key question. Ranking them in order of importance to you helps to ensure that your major concerns are addressed, even if time is limited.

Remember, interruptions and distractions are facts of life in modern medicine, and the environment affects practitioners. Studies have shown that doctors tend to interrupt patients after a short time, which leads to the all-too-common feeling that "I wasn't really heard."

So, at the start of the visit, don't be shy about helping to set the agenda. Let your doctor know up front if you have more than one issue to discuss, so you can decide together how best to use the available time. Don't wait until the end of the visit to bring up a significant concern.

During the visit, speak up if you don't understand something the doctor said. Practitioners grow accustomed to using medical terms as a kind of verbal shorthand, and sometimes forget that not everyone speaks the medical language. Ask for clarification when things are unclear.

Patients whose primary language is not English can also encounter difficulties, though they should request and expect a medical interpreter. Most doctors have access to effective interpretation services that use simple technology.

Many doctors are also adjusting to computers in the exam room. Accessing a patient's electronic medical record during a visit can be useful, and is fast becoming a standard practice. But the computer screen also competes for attention. If you're not sure if you're being heard, say something like, "This is really important to me. Can we just talk for a minute?"

At the conclusion of your visit, ask for a summary of what you and the doctor have decided together. This is an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings, and to ensure you're both clear on the plan.

Finally, if you feel discouraged about communication with your doctor, consider alternatives before switching to a new one. Consider scheduling a visit with your doctor specifically to discuss your concerns. Or, if it feels more comfortable, write them a note. They might not be aware that you are dissatisfied, and would appreciate the chance to clear the air.

Patching up the professional relationship with your primary care physician can have benefits in the long run, because they're already familiar with your medical history. The longer you've seen your doctor, the more capable they are of individualizing their care to meet your needs.

Using these guidelines, you can get the most out of your health care visits.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Dr. Barrow has practiced family medicine at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez since 1977.