How to Get What You Want from the Doctor

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Getting Prepped
If you have read anything at all about preparing for a visit to the doctor, you know that you're supposed to bring a list of health concerns with you. What you may not know is that although doctors recognize a need for "the list," most of them cringe inwardly when you pull one out. In Patient Care magazine, Frederic W. Platt, M.D., writes that doctors resent patients who bring long, poorly organized lists that waste their time and (some feel) challenge their authority. French doctors even have a nickname for what's ailing the list-bearers: "la maladie du petite papier" (the sickness of the little paper).

Don't let this stop you from bringing your list, however. Just make sure it is brief, specific, and prioritized. Platt recommends bringing a copy for the doctor, too, so she will feel included. For each item, provide the following information:

  • What are the symptoms?
  • When did you first notice them?
  • What times of day or night do they occur?
  • How long do they last?
  • Are they getting better, worse, or remaining constant?
  • How do the symptoms affect your daily activities?
Magic Words and Deeds in the Doctor's Office
Once you understand the mind-set of doctors, you can choose behaviors that will put them at ease while you draw information out of them. The most important strategy is to keep your voice steady and calm. Doctors are afraid of emotion, so the less you show, the more comfortable they will feel. Barbara Korsch explains: "If you put drama in your voice, it will turn the doctor off. Be quantitative and objective instead of saying how you feel. This is unfortunate; doctors shouldn't be that way, but in my studies we've learned that they are." When you seem desperate or panicky, when your voice is trembling with anxiety, the doctor's first reaction will be to try to tone it down. "Your emotional reactions engage doctors less than describing what it is you're reacting to," says Korsch.

In addition to using a neutral tone of voice, the following words and deeds will keep you in the doctor's good graces.

  • Use neutral words to describe feelings. Be concerned instead of scared. Be apprehensive instead of a nervous wreck. In everyday life we tend to exaggerate to get results, but with doctors you have to go to the opposite extreme. Even if you are in agony, try not to use those words. Instead say, "I have a lot of discomfort."
  • Use specific words to describe symptoms. "I haven't slept a wink," doesn't tell a doctor much. Instead say, "I've been averaging only four hours of sleep a night, and I usually get seven. I've been waking up every hour or so, and it takes me at least 20 minutes to fall asleep again."
  • Talk about the most important things first. Doctors are very time-sensitive and will (understandably) be annoyed if you wait until the end of your visit to bring up a problem that requires some time to address.
  • Make your expectations clear. At the beginning of the visit, tell the doctor exactly why you are there and what you hope she can do for you.
  • Acknowledge the doctor's situation. If the office is jam-packed and everyone seems stressed out, let the doctor know you're on his side: "It must be hard for you today, so I'll try to be concise."
  • Be clean. Personal hygiene does matter. If you smell bad, the doctor will want to get away from you, just as anyone else would.
  • Keep an open mind. "Patients have a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about medicine," says Barry Rosenbloom. "It's vague or distorted or based on what they've heard from a friend or read in a magazine." As a result, some people arrive at the doctor's office expecting a certain response, and when they don't get it, they go on the offensive. "They may not like what the doctor says, and that's OK," says Rosenbloom. "But if they're going to challenge the doctor at every turn, the doctor, like any other human being, is going to be put off by it. If people want a valuable experience with a physician, they have to be open-minded."