Marie Savard, M.D., Medical Contributor to Good Morning, America and the author most recently of Ask Dr. Marie, says that when she was in a group practice she had a “panel” of literally thousands of patients. That’s typical of most doctors – probably yours. No wonder office visits are limited to a mere fifteen minutes unless you’re scheduled for your annual full physical exam. Even then, you’ll only have thirty minutes or less of face time with your physician. Add to that the infamous “white coat syndrome” that can leave you tongue-tied, and you can see why Dr. Marie urges you to be fully prepared before your appointment. Here’s her advice:
Keep A Health Journal
Either in a bound journal or on a spreadsheet on your computer, keep track of your symptoms and concerns about your health. Note the date you started experiencing changes in your bowel habits or the time you felt unaccountably dizzy or the evening you first found you couldn’t fall asleep or stay asleep. You know better than anyone else when something isn’t quite right with the way you feel. When Dr. Marie gives speeches, she often use the following quote from Albert Schweitzer, M.D., the noted physician who was also a philosopher, musician, and theologian: “Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to work.” You can help your doctor do that by trusting your instincts, paying attention to what Dr. Marie has termed your “health radar,” and making a note of anything unusual.
Make A Written List Of Symptoms
Arm yourself with a written list of anything that’s bothering you. Consult your health journal before your appointment and copy down whatever seems relelvant. If you are hesitant to bring up symptoms that could be caused by a sexually transmitted disease or a not-so-healthy lifestyle, remind yourself that your doctor is there to help you rather than judge you.
Do Your Research
Studies show that almost 80 percent of women turn to the Web when they have a health issue. You should, too. However, if you run across information you don’t quite understand or that worries you, write down your questions and bring the list along so you can ask your doctor to clarify what you found. Also, you might find breaking news that your doctor hasn’t seen. If so, she should welcome the chance to look into it. If she doesn’t, maybe you ought to change doctors.
Be Ready To Answer Your Doctor’s Questions
Bone up on your own health history and write everything down. Your doctor needs to know about allergies, substance use, sex, eating and weight issues, and exercise habits. Your family history is important, too, but it matters most if your relatives had diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and strokes at fairly young ages. For example, if your mother had a heart attack before the age of 65, that could mean you’re at greater than normal risk but if she died of heart failure at the age of 90, then heart disease doesn’t “run in the family” after all.
Write Down What Your Doctor Tells You
A study reported in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed that most patients forget 50 percent of what a doctor has said as soon as they walk out of the office. That’s why it’s a good idea to take notes during your office visit and then enter them in your health journal after you get home.
Consider Bringing Along A “Health Buddy”
Dr. Marie coined the term “Health Buddy” to describe someone you trust who can literally and figuratively hold your hand when you have to go to the doctor. If you’re planning to discuss sensitive or private issues, then you may prefer to go alone. But if you’re worried that you may have cancer or some other dread disease, you might be better off getting someone to go with you. She can help you stay calm and be your second pair of ears, take notes, and can remind you to speak up if nerves make you forget something crucial. Your sister or your daughter or your BFF are good candidates for the role of “Health Buddy.” Or maybe you’d rather bring your husband or the man in your life. However, Dr. Marie says that in her experience, most women choose another woman. Either way, you’ll be making sure you use your brief but vital time with your doctor to your very best advantage.
Sondra Forsyth, Senior Editor for ThirdAge, is a National Magazine Award winner who writes for major magazines. Theauthor or co-author of eleven books, she was Executive Editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, Features Editor at Cosmopolitan, and Articles Editor at Bride’s. A former ballerina, she is the Artistic Director of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City.