5 steps to becoming a great patient

The payoff is much more effective treatment

Published: April 2014

As physicians, we’re obligated to treat all patients to the best of our ability. But the truth is that we’re human, and we react to how you act. These five steps help us make the most of your valuable time.

1. Don't ignore symptoms

Early intervention can often mean the difference between a good or bad outcome. It’s time to call the office to make an appointment the minute you start to wonder, “Should I go see a doctor?” If your symptoms turn out to be nothing, your doctor won’t mind and you’ll feel a lot better. If they turn out to be something, you’ll have done yourself a favor by getting timely treatment.

2. Be sweet to the office staff

Those administrative employees working at the front desk are the people who give the doctor your messages and handle the requirements of insurance companies. They appreciate simple courtesies, such as arriving on time and calling as soon as you realize that you have to cancel. One latecomer can throw off the schedule for the day, and every office has a list of people waiting to take a canceled appointment.

Also ask ahead of time what you’ll need to bring with you, such as your health-insurance card, a list of medications, names and contact information for other doctors you are seeing, and the results of tests done elsewhere. Having to track down missing information is time-consuming for the office staff. And that missing information can keep your doctor from providing the right treatment. If she doesn’t have a full list of the medications you’re taking, for example, she might prescribe something that conflicts with one of them.

3. Tell the doctor everything

Doctors need a complete picture of your health and life situation to make the right treatment decisions, including personal information you might consider embarrassing. Privacy laws ensure that doctors can’t disclose your medical information without your written permission except in specific circum­stances, such as when there are signs of abuse, certain injuries (such as a stab or gunshot wound), or certain contagious diseases.

So be sure to let your doctor know if you started smoking or you’re drinking more than you used to; you lost your job and can’t afford treatment; you were recently widowed or divorced; or you haven’t filled a prescription, taken your medication as directed, or finished a course of treatment. If you don’t tell your doctor, he might assume that your medication isn’t working and increase your dose unnecessarily, or order follow-up tests that aren’t really needed.

4. Trust your doctor

I’ve long believed that shared medical decision-making is far superior to the old paternalistic doctor-knows-best relationship. The key to making it work is mutual trust. You trust the doctor to respect your opinion and needs in making treatment decisions. And your doctor trusts you to be informed about your condition and to respect her professional expertise. Here’s how to handle two situations that can put that to the test.

Playing Dr. Google. A helpful way to use the Internet is to deepen your knowledge of your condition, develop a list of questions for your next visit, or connect with other patients with a similar problem. Not so helpful is using the Internet to self-diagnose and self-treat without running it past your doctor first. A wrong conclusion could land you in trouble.

Multiple second opinions. I’m a huge fan of second opinions. I encourage my own patients to seek them out when faced with a difficult diagnosis or decision, and I’ve provided them as well. But there’s a limit. A recent patient was par­alyzed by indecision after seeking several medical opinions (I was number seven), all with slightly different recommendations. Medicine frequently involves judgment calls, and sooner or later you’ll have to trust one of them.

5. Together, you're a great team

That’s what it all boils down to, after all. How to make that happen? See items one through four.  

Orly Avitzur, M.D.

Medical Adviser
Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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