How to Be a Smarter Patient
Make the most of your next doctor visit
By Joanna Topor MacKenzie
Though the doctors in these articles are making daily strides to help their patients lead longer, healthier lives, all of them are pressed for time. Stretched to the max, family physicians can usually see, at best, only about 30 patients a day. "There is limited time in an office visit and a lot to get communicated," says David Ansell, the chief medical officer at Rush Medical Center. "It's helpful for the patient to come prepared."
That is especially important because quality health care starts with the office visit—and it's up to patients to make the most of the face time they have with their doctors. "Patients drive the process much more than they realize," says Robert Noven, the former medical director of corporate health (which provides medical services to local businesses) at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Here are the things you can do to become a smarter patient:
Find the right doctor. The doctor-patient relationship is "just like a marriage," says Carolyn Clancy, the director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)—part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—based in Rockville, Maryland. "You need to find someone you can communicate with," she says. Many patients rate a doctor based on the thoroughness of a physical exam, but, according to Clancy, a doctor's best quality is his or her listening skill. "It's about your story," she says.
Unlike the online dating scene, there are no matchmaking sites for doctors and patients, so the process of finding the right fit can be hit or miss. The list of doctors in these pages is a good place to start, and Web sites like those sponsored by the American Medical Association (ama-assn.org) can provide background information on possible candidates. Rush's Ansell believes patients should not be shy about interviewing finalists. "It's not a bad idea to try a doctor out," he says.
Go prepared. Patients need to be "proactive and informed," says Noven. "[They should] consider what they are arming their doctor with." All the doctors suggest writing down your concerns prior to visiting with your doctor. Keeping a log of symptoms and preparing a list of any questions before an appointment will go a long way toward ensuring you get what you need from your health-care professional.
Do your research, but know when to stop. Many patients today have access to the Web, which is full of information that can shed light on symptoms and medications—though sometimes those same sites can easily confuse and overwhelm. "It's important for doctors to talk to patients about how to use technology," says Northwestern's Noven, who often refers patients to sites like emedicine .com or Webmd.com for more information about diagnoses or treatment options. "It can work in combination with an office visit, but patients don't have the perspective that doctors do when it comes to interpreting the [findings]."
Clancy, who is a fan of medlineplus.com, adds that although Web sites should not be used for self-diagnosis, your doctor should be open to following up on all your findings without dismissing them outright.
Ask questions. "Most physicians will have a closer such as 'Do you have any more questions?'" says Ansell. "But with the pressure to move on to the next patient, not all of them use it." He recommends having that list of questions ready for the end of the visit. While some doctors are available for follow-up, it's the patient's responsibility to leave feeling informed.
For those who are not sure where to start with their queries, Clancy suggests checking out the AHRQ's consumer page (ahrq.gov/consumer) for a list of sample questions. "Quality health care is a shared responsibility," she says. "The more you get involved, the better."