Advocating for Yourself At The Doctor's Office

Health Professional

This is a common question that I hear from patients, family, and friends.   Going to the doctor's office can be an intimidating experience.   For one, if you are going to the doctor, there is a good chance that you are not feeling well.   But even if you are feeling good and going in for a simple well-visit check-up, it can still be an uncomfortable and/or imposing experience.   There can be many forms to fill out, a different environment to contend with, new faces, in many offices there is a wait before seeing the doctor, instruments in the rooms that you are not sure what they are for but hope they are not for you, and in the backdrop of all this, you are there to discuss the most important issue there is: your health. It is no wonder that many people's blood pressure goes up when they enter the doctor's office

How do you make sure that you best advocate for yourself so that (1) you get the best possible care you need, (2) you have your questions addressed and fully answered, and (3) you leave the appointment feeling it was a worthwhile, informative, positive experience.

In the first place, try to find the doctor that best fits you and your needs.   Some doctors may be better than others, but there really is no "best doctor" for any one particular thing.   Each doctor will have a different interpersonal approach, a different office and office staff, and a slightly different bias when it comes to diagnosis and treatment.   There may be no "best doctor" but there is likely a "best fit" for you and your needs.     Talk to your family and friends about who they have seen and what their experiences have been like. If you are going to see a specialist, also talk with your primary care doctor for his or her opinion. Ask your primary care doctor for more than one specialist so you can ask around and see what your family and friends have experienced with each.

  • Before your visit to your doctor, write down a list of questions. I cannot emphasize this piece of advice enough.   Once you are in the doctor's office, it is so easy to forget questions that you may have been thinking of all week.   When you are sitting in the office is not the time to worry about remembering questions you "meant to ask."   Spend a few minutes during the days before your appointment and jot down questions that you might have. Then, bring that piece of paper with you to your appointment and, as you ask your questions and get answers, tick those questions off the list.
  • In addition to your list of questions, bring a pen and paper and be prepared to write down one or two things during your office visit.   You shouldn't be spending your time transcribing your visit.   Primarily, you should be listening to and interacting with your doctor. But you may hear a word, or a medication, or something else that you want to write down so you can look it up or think about it later.
  • Ask a loved one to come along with you to your visit.   No matter how prepared you are for your doctor's visit, it helps to have a loved one there for support and also to think of additional questions that you may not think to ask.     Let that loved one know questions you have before the visit -- that way if you forget them or forget to go down your list of questions during the visit, your loved one can remind you to do so.
  • Don't be afraid to ask your doctor to repeat something you may miss the first time.   Often, there is a lot of new information at a doctor's visit and it can be overwhelming.   Doctors don't mind repeating themselves, so ask. I would rather spend a few extra minutes to make sure my patients are informed and comfortable with what I have told them then find out later that they really didn't understand what we discussed.     As part of that, sometimes it may be necessary to schedule an additional appointment later in the week after you have had a chance to digest some of the information so you can come back with more questions and thoughts and discuss some more.   Education and understanding what is going on with your body is an important part of treatment for many people.   Don't be afraid to ask questions, ask them twice, think about them, and ask for clarification later if it is necessary.
  • Never be afraid to ask for a second opinion.   Any good doctor who is confident in what he or she does should not mind you seeking a second opinion.   In fact, the doctor should welcome it because it should confirm his or her opinion and make you, the patient, more comfortable with the diagnosis and treatment plan.   If you are thinking about whether a second opinion is a good idea, then it probably is a good idea.   Ask your doctor for some names of other doctors to go to for a second opinion. Also, ask your family, friends, and primary care doctor for names of other doctors who would be able to offer a good second opinion.

In the end, your doctor's visit is all about your health.   And nothing is more important than that. Do a little homework before you go to your doctor to get the most out of the experience.