Health NW column: Effective medical appointments, Part 1

Health NW column: Effective medical appointments, Part 1

Visits to a health care provider's office or clinic can be frustrating. I know this from my experience, both as a nurse practitioner and as a patient. As a patient, you are in a vulnerable position: you are either sick or you have some concern about your health. You need information and help from your health care provider. If you leave the appointment feeling as if your questions were not answered and you did not get the help you need, it is normal to feel distressed and disappointed. It's likely that your health care provider feels the same way. Usually the problem is a simple failure to communicate. The good news is that there are some steps you can take which will increase the likelihood you will get what you need out of a medical appointment.

This week's column will focus on what you can do before a medical appointment to get the most out of it. Next week's column will focus on the appointment itself, and how to get the help you need.

My first recommendation is that you keep a file with all your medical information and bring it to your medical appointments, especially if you are seeing a new health care provider for the first time. If your medical history is long and complicated, you may want to summarize it. For example:

• Childhood diseases: chickenpox, measles, and mumps.

• 1960: Childbirth; gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

• August 1972: Automobile accident; broken arm, broken nose, neck pain. Still have some neck pain and stiffness since then.

• 1983-1985: Depression; hospitalized twice.

• March 1992: Cataract surgery, right eye.

Also keep records of your immunizations and medications. If you are allergic to any medications, note the name of the medicine and the type of reaction you had (a rash, hives, anaphylactic reaction, vomiting).

Before you make an appointment, take a few minutes and write down your current problems or concerns. Be clear on what you want to get out of the appointment. For example:

• Sore throat and fever for three days: I want to be checked for strep throat because I think I might need antibiotics.

• Chest pains when I exercise: I want to know if this is serious and what I should do about it.

• I feel tired all the time: I want to find out what is causing this and get some advice on what I can do to feel more energetic.

If you have a complicated problem, try writing it out by answering these questions:

• What is the main symptom?

• What are other symptoms?

• How does it feel or look?

• Where exactly is the location of the problem?

• When did you first notice this?

• How often does it occur?

• When does it occur (times of the day, days of the week)?

• What helps it feel better?

• What makes it feel worse?

• What do you think is causing it?

• Does anyone else around you have these symptoms?

When you call the office or clinic to make an appointment, be clear with the receptionist about what your problem is and how urgently you need to see the health care provider. You don't need to go into detail about your symptoms, but do give a clear picture of your situation. If you feel that you need to be seen right away, but yet you're given an appointment next week, ask that your health care provider or the nurse call you today. If you have many health concerns, make it clear that you need plenty of time to address them all. Most medical appointments are only 10-15 minutes long, which may not be enough time to address multiple concerns.

Next week: more about how to get the most out of a medical appointment.

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