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1 Question, 5 Answers: What’s the Best Way to Remember What Your Doctor Tells You?

Whether you’re at the doctor’s office for a routine checkup, a sick visit or managing a chronic condition, you’re likely to receive some pretty important information. While the recommendation to drink more water may stick, anything more complicated than a simple suggestion could be hard to remember, much less act upon.

With the increasing prevalence of online medical health records and patient portals, it’s easier than ever to communicate with doctors online outside the exam room, but you could still miss something vital if you don’t retain what the doctor tells you during your appointment. What would doctors recommend patients do to remember the crucial information relayed to them? Five MDs sound off.

Dr. Purvi Parikh, MD

Allergist/immunologist, NYU Langone Health
New York City

A new diagnosis can be overwhelming, especially when it’s a new condition — it can be a lot of information at once. Studies show that patients who spend half an hour in the doctor’s office retain just 10 to 20 percent of what they’re told. That’s information about medications, lifestyle changes, etc.

I encourage my patients to take notes, whether on their phone or with pen and paper. I’ll mention that we have handouts with general information, so they’ll have that as a reference point and the notes will supplement that.

I also want patients to ask questions. If there’s something your doctor tells you that you don’t understand, ask questions, as many as you can. When I’m a patient, I ask as many questions as possible to make sure I understand. If you don’t ask questions, the doctor may assume you understood. There are no stupid questions when it comes to your health. Discussing things with your doctors helps you remember it better than a handout alone.

Dr. Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP

Portland, Oregon

Put your cell phone away, remove other distractions, and be mindful so you can use your active listening skills while you’re at the clinic. Take notes while the doctor is talking with you. Having information written in your own handwriting helps you remember it. Read the information the doctor gives you before you leave their office so you can ask questions while the conversation is still fresh in your mind.

Dr. Ziad Gellad, MD

Internist, Duke University Medical Center
Durham, North Carolina

I always encourage patients to bring a family member or trusted adviser with them to their visit. Four ears are always better than two.

I try to always summarize the key points at the end of the visit. I’ll write down the key points I’d like my patients to take away from their visit. Some of these points will be included in a standard after-visit summary created by the electronic medical record, but a few extra handwritten notes go a long way too.

Dr. Paul Hyman, MD

Topsham, Maine

The limited amount of time allotted for most patient visits and the current software that many organizations use to help provide patient information and education are inadequate for effectively communicating with patients. 

I use several strategies to try to help my patients remember what we discussed in an appointment. When a topic is critical or if I have concerns about whether a patient is understanding what I am saying, I check to see if I have been clear by asking them to repeat back to me what I have advised. This is a technique called “Teach Back” which helps people remember. I tell patients, “We covered a lot today. It can be confusing. To make sure what I said made sense, do you think you could try to summarize what the plan is?”

I always write a summary in the after-visit summary paperwork with highlights of what I feel are the most important points to remember. Sometimes I give out patient handouts with more information regarding some of the topics we discussed. I also have a nurse follow up after the appointment to see if a patient has questions or needs to discuss a topic again.

Dr. Susan Besser, MD

Family medicine, Mercy Personal Physicians
Overlea, Maryland

It’s hard to remember everything you get at a doctor’s visit — it’s a lot of information.

Bring a notepad and a list of questions with you to the appointment. When a patient is in the doctor’s office, they tend to forget what they were going to ask. Do your homework and jot notes down before you go, especially if you have a list of issues to discuss; write them all down. Just don’t expect us doctors to handle a laundry list of complaints. Keep it to three to four issues.

You can tape the conversation with your doctor, just be sure to ask permission first.  

It’s best if you can bring someone with you, such as a spouse, family member, adult child or close friend. It’s not just another pair of ears, but someone who can help advocate for you and remind you what questions to ask.

If you’re confused or can’t remember what the doctor told you to do next, you can call the office, but you’ll likely talk to the receptionist and not the doctor. Make a follow-up appointment instead.

Responses have been condensed and lightly edited. 

Show Comments (1)
  1. Edilberto Taca Albea

    I have learned so much for the preparation regarding the Annual Physical for my new Medical Doctor.

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