How to Make the Most of Your Doctor Visit

Most doctor appointments fly by in 20 minutes. Here’s help getting your concerns addressed

Photo: Woman sitting at home dining table, writing a list

You might be surprised to learn that doctors today are spending more time with patients than they did in the 1990s. Back then, 70 percent of doctor visits were over in 15 minutes or less. That almost makes the current average of 22.1 minutes seem like a luxury. Except it's not.

"A lot needs to happen in our short time together" says Robert F. Raspa, M.D., a family physician and faculty member with St. Vincent's Family Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida. "I want to set an agenda and, as quickly as possible, get to the root of your concern. You, understandably, may not really want to be there and so may be more inclined to ease into what brings you to my office on that particular day. These aren't opposing goals, but they often feel as if they compete against each other."

Getting to a happy middle ground is easier when you do some advanced planning and preparation.

Make a list. Write down your top concerns and questions before your appointment and show it to the doctor first thing. "Letting me see your list will help me prioritize our time together," says Dr. Raspa. It also means you're less likely to forget something you wanted to ask or have checked out.

Rehearse. "Many of my older patients take a long time to give me the background of their concern," says Dr. Raspa. "I don't say that to be critical—it's just how older generations process and share information." While he admits to enjoying the stories, he says the best way to maximize your time with your doctor is to lead off with the vitals—where it hurts, when it hurts, how long the pain lasts, and how it's affecting your daily life. At home, practice describing your concern in a way that focuses on those bits of key information.

Be brave. Don't be afraid to bring up sensitive topics with your doctor. It may be a blow to your ego to admit that your muscles are feeling weaker or that you fell down at home, but those are issues your doctor wants to hear about and help you with, says Dr. Raspa. The same goes with any change in your sexual health or such issues as incontinence or constipation. "Those topics are never fun to talk about," he says, "but we've heard it all before. You won't shock us."

Bring backup. Bright lights, cold exam room, flimsy gown, medical jargon ... it can all add up to an awkward and sometimes confusing experience. Ask a trusted family member or friend to come with you and give them a task. "The best thing your loved one can do is take notes for you," Dr. Raspa says. "Give them permission ahead of time to speak up and ask questions. Doctors often won't ask you if you understand because you're sitting there nodding as if you do. So many times, it's the partner who'll inquire about the tests I'm ordering or who'll ask for details about the medication I'm prescribing."