6 Ways to Be a Better Patient

By Joseph Pinzone, MD. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

The vital in-person meeting between a doctor and his patient is a pillar of the American health care system. It’s the cornerstone of medical practice, and this key relationship determines the quality and completeness of any visit.

Research suggests that patients who are more active in this crucial encounter feel safer asking questions and participating in their own care. In fact, patients who communicate effectively most often enjoy better quality of life and tend to experience higher satisfaction in doctor-driven relationships.

While more medical schools prepare newer curriculums that help motivate and teach doctors to become better communicators, there’s little-to-no direction on how to become a better patient. And yet, being a knowledgeable and proactive patient can result in superior care. Before your next annual checkup or specialist’s visit, try these strategies for managing this vital health connection.

  1. Ensure you have enough time with your doctor. When scheduling the appointment, make certain whoever you speak to knows that you have several things to address with your physician. Often, patients are sensitive about wasting their doctor’s time, so assuage this worry with remarks such as, “I’ve done my homework and have a number of things I’d like to discuss with you. An unhurried visit is important to me.”
  2. Take the appointment seriously. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the best kind of patients are meticulous in their preparation. They are thoughtful, come with prepared questions and often bring a caregiver or care partner (a spouse, close friend or family member, for instance) to each appointment to help raise alarms or just jot down critical answers during the exam.
  3. Detail the full history of your ailment. Like any other significant consultation or meeting in life, laying the groundwork is key. Compile a complete list of your symptoms, and outline what’s known as “History of Present Illness” (HPI), which tells the story of your illness from when it began. Think back to when your problem cropped up. How did it unfold? What were some signals?  Weaving a clear story about your medical history will go a long way in helping your doctor help you.
  4. Include a timeline of your symptoms and signs. Symptoms are often sensations you perceive, like pain, while signs are objective findings you or others can perceive, such as a lump or rash. Be detailed when describing your signs and symptoms, and write them down if possible. Here’s a journal entry from a well-prepared patient who unexpectedly and mysteriously started experiencing heartburn: “I had been previously well until lower belly pain began suddenly last Saturday after dinner and has continued, ebbing and flowing, for the last 72 hours.”
  5. Describe exactly what the symptoms feel like. Jot down the progression of symptoms — burning, throbbing or dull pain — and use vivid adjectives. Detail where in your body you’re feeling the symptoms and if (and when) pain levels increase or subside. Also list all the medications you take, including those you recently began taking to treat these specific signals.
  6. Make sure you take the next steps. Before you leave the appointment, ensure you are clear about what to do next, and hold your doctor’s office accountable — in a good way. Your doctor’s office should follow through on their end of the plan, whether it’s with a phone call or a follow-up visit.

Certainly, much of medical care is common sense, but there is an art and science to being a good doctor – one who continues to listen and learn all the time. Similarly, there are preemptive strategies to becoming a more effective and powerful patient.

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