The average doctor’s appointment in the U.S. lasts between 15 and 20 minutes. But doctors aren’t spending all that time examining or talking to patients: A recent study found that physicians spent 53 percent of time in the exam room directly engaging with patients and 37 percent filling out paperwork.
While we can’t change doctors’ schedules, we can take measures to make sure our paper-gown minutes count. The first step to a productive visit is planning ahead. We asked experts what every patient should do, and know, before going to the doctor. Then we used their advice to create a pre-appointment checklist. Whether you’re heading in for a checkup, an I-feel-sick visit or a specialist consultation, these 12 tips can help you prepare for your care.
1. Document your symptoms
Make a list of all your symptoms, and be specific: What does the symptom feel like, when does it happen, how long does it last and what makes it better or worse? “I like to start with current symptoms and then work back,” says Dr. Jonathan Magid, an internal medicine doctor in Houston. Even if you’re just seeing a doctor for a routine visit, it makes sense to take stock of how you’ve been feeling lately and jot down any recent health issues or recurring complaints.
2. Pack up your meds
Many doctors will ask you to bring in a list of your current prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and any other supplements — with names and dosages. Dr. Margot Savoy, department chair of family and community medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine, prefers patients to bring the physical bottles. You should also tell doctors about medications you take on an as-needed basis, such as an anti-anxiety drug for flying.
3. Make a list of questions
You might have 10 things to discuss with your doctor, but “make a top-three list and prioritize those,” says Dr. Siobahn Hruby, who practices internal medicine in Little Rock, Arkansas. Be prepared to come back to address issues you don’t get to, Magid adds. Although, for more minor questions, such as when to take a certain medication, an additional in-person visit might not be necessary. You can tell your doctor you didn’t hit every agenda item on your list and ask them the best way to follow up, e.g., via the patient portal or a quick call.
Savoy suggests dedicating a notebook to health questions, concerns and observations, and bringing it with you to all appointments. Also, keep a running list of general medical questions on your phone, she says. If there’s unused time during a visit, you’ll have extra questions to ask.
4. Write a health summary
If you’re seeing a doctor for the first time, create a one-page health summary, says Hruby. That way, the doctor doesn’t have to spend time asking basic questions. “It doesn’t need to be an essay,” she says. Instead, create sections — current medications, immunizations, allergies, surgeries current issues — with bullet points.
5. Document your family history
Health issues that run in your family are always relevant to your care. Be specific, Magid says: Knowing that your grandfather had blocked arteries and a heart attack at age 50, rather than just “heart disease,” is helpful. Most doctors will want this information, so make sure it’s readily available and easy to share. That might mean putting it into a Google doc (and making it available offline), writing everything down and taking a photo of your notes, or keeping a printout with you.
6. Consider bringing your medical devices
When Magid sees patients for the first time, he asks them to bring in any medical devices they use, such as a home blood pressure monitor, an inhaler or a glucometer. “It’s nice to have those devices at the appointment to verify they’re working and that the patient is using them correctly,” he says.
7. Don’t forget copies of new test results
If you went to urgent care or the ER recently and had any tests done, such as an X-ray or an MRI, bring the results with you. It can be tricky for doctors to get copies from the ER. “It’s easier if I don’t have to chase results down,” Magid says.
8. Know if you should eat before your visit
If you’re getting an annual physical, your doctor might want you to fast. That way, they’ll be able to run blood tests to check your sugar and cholesterol levels, and any other blood work that requires an empty stomach for accurate results. Typically, you’ll need to fast for eight hours. Magid says it’s fine to drink water and have a cup of black coffee or tea during your fast. You should also keep taking prescription meds, except certain diabetes medications like insulin, which could cause blood sugar levels — already low from fasting — to drop further. If you have to fast, pack a small snack to eat after your blood draw.
9. Get familiar with your healthcare plan
It’s helpful to review your insurance coverage before you get to the doctor’s office, Hruby says. Here are a few basic questions to ask yourself:
- What kind of care are you getting? Most insurance plans are obligated to cover preventive services, such as annual checkups and most screening tests, without imposing any costs on patients. (That means no copay.) Tests ordered by a doctor during a preventive care appointment, though, aren’t always covered. If your insurance plan is changing for the better in the New Year, for example, you might be better off postponing non-critical tests. Elective procedures, such as Botox, are never covered. Services that fall under the 10 Essential Health Benefits must be covered by ACA-compliant plans — but many of these services come with out-of-pocket costs that vary from plan to plan. So go look at yours.
- Is this doctor still in-network for you? It’s not uncommon for doctors to renegotiate their contracts with health insurance companies, or even break ties with certain providers.
- Do you need preauthorization for any tests you’re getting? Some insurance plans have to give your doctor permission to administer certain tests or procedures before they’ll cover them. Doctors often know what they need permission for, but you should still check since doctors can’t keep up with every patient’s plan details.
- If you have a deductible, have you met it yet?
- If you have an FSA or HSA, how much money is left?
10. Don’t make major lifestyle changes you won’t stick with
Doctors want to be able to assess the real you, so “if you drink 325 days out of year,” says Magid, “don’t quit alcohol the week before to make yourself look good,” only to start up again after your appointment. The same goes for diet, exercise and other aspects of day-to-day life. Of course, a commitment to healthy living is something any doctor would encourage. But you can’t cram for a checkup like it’s the final exam in a class you blew off all semester. A pre-appointment cleanse won’t actually make you healthier, but it could make your doctor’s job harder.
11. Think about bringing an advocate
“It usually helps to have someone else in the room to help you take notes,” Savoy says. Consider asking a trusted family member or friend to tag along on your visit so you don’t miss anything. It’s especially helpful for older patients if their adult children come along, she says.
12. Arrive early, with entertainment
Show up with time to spare — 15 minutes is a good rule of thumb — in case you need to fill out paperwork or get a new insurance card scanned. Above all, Hruby says, be prepared to be patient: “Many times, the reason you’re waiting is because the person ahead of you is much sicker than you are.” Bring a book or a magazine. Download an episode of a show. If your doctor’s office has Wi-Fi, bring your laptop and get some work done.