How did your last doctor's appointment go? If you're like most patients, your answer might be "too quickly."
You've probably noticed how busy your doctor is as he or she zips in and out of exam rooms. As a result, your visit is getting shorter – the average time a doc has to spend with each patient has dwindled to a speedy seven minutes, research shows.
There are consequences to such short interactions. We all know the experience: We shake our head when the doc asks "any questions?" But at home, we start to remember. What was it you wanted to mention to the doctor last week? Should you have brought up that headache? Did your insurance cover that test she mentioned?
It helps to be prepared with data and questions for your visit, but you're a busy person too: How can you know which data is most useful?
The good news is you have all the tools you need to get the most out of your doctor's visit right at your fingertips. Technology can simplify your health care experience and help your doc help you. So get your smartphone on for better health!
1. Do your homework
By all means, go to Google your symptoms! There's plenty of information you can glean from trustworthy sites and fellow patients. Don't be afraid to admit the scary things you've read while conducting your "self-diagnosis." Your doctor can help rule out all worst-case scenarios and alleviate your worry.
Yes, there are some dubious sources out there, and it is possible to overdo it. But overall, research helps you be more informed as a patient. After talking it out, your research skills will get even sharper.
2. Know your history
Carry a record of your medical history in your smartphone. Make sure you have your updated health record (you can ask any of your doctors for this), especially documenting any conditions you have had in the past, along with any medication you have taken.
Many apps will allow you to securely store health data. Make sure you get copies of any medical images and past lab data. Bringing in these resources helps your doctors add context to your conditions.
3. Keep tabs on yourself
To be as accurate as possible when discussing your current symptoms, you need to keep a timeline.
Got a fever? You need to know when it was at its highest. Rash? What did it look like two days ago? This information is invaluable to your doctor, who gets to see you and evaluate your symptoms only in that five-to-seven minute window. Download an electronic diary app that can store secure picture and video.
Keep the description simple: think bullets, not essays. It's very important to note how you are feeling or how your symptoms have has affected your normal function.
4. Stay focused
Make a list of the most important issues you need to talk about and try not to digress. Doctors are like detectives. When you bring up a symptom, they are keenly listening for clues that might give them some idea about your diagnosis, and they have a series of questions they need to ask you.
By staying focused and answering questions attentively, you make your doctor's job easier – and you'll get your answers more quickly.
Your visit may be short, but there's a whole lot of information exchanged in that seven minutes. Ask for a printed or electronic copy of your doctor's instructions. If you're not 100 percent clear, ask your doctor to sit and explain with you a second time.
Don't be afraid to question the treatment you may think is appropriate. This will help you learn and help your doctor understand your comfort level.
Now that you've got a treatment plan, get back to the research. Repeat steps one through five to prepare for your next visit.
(Dr. Gopal Chopra is a neurosurgeon who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. He is the co-founder, president and CEO of pingmd, a health care company designed to advance communication between patients and doctors.)