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6 things to do in a doctor’s waiting room

Consumer Reports News: March 18, 2010 10:38 AM

Waiting for a doctor can get frustrating, especially if you’re in a hurry. Just last week I cooled my heels for more than an hour when I took my son to get a flu shot. While I paced, he texted his friends (and the doctor kept coming out to check the football game scores). As a physician myself, I got to thinking there must be things patients can do to make their wait more productive and less irritating. The next time you’re kept waiting, you may want to consider these:

1. Make a list of your top health concerns. If you organize them in advance, it can help us concentrate on your problem and provide you with optimal treatment. If you’re a new patient, we want to know the main reasons you’re here. If you’re a returning patient, we’d like to hear how you’ve been feeling since your last appointment. Focus on your most frequent or most severe symptoms, noting when they began, how often they occur, what makes them worse, and what makes them better. 

Try to keep your explanations clear and to the point, without too many tangents. That will help us evaluate your complaints and arrive at the right diagnosis. And bring complaints up early enough during your visit to discuss them. Nothing’s more disruptive than a patient who mentions an urgent symptom just as we’re about to move on to the next patient.

2. Write questions down. It’s the easiest way to remember to ask them, and it will save you the hassle of making a follow-up phone call. Glance at the list as your appointment is winding down to see whether you’ve covered everything. It can also be useful to repeat the answers back to your doctor. That helps avoid potentially dangerous misunderstandings.

3. Make a list of all your medications. I’ve seen more medication errors than I care to admit. Some were due to drug interactions, others to dosage errors, and still others to drug-name mix-ups. That’s why I advise all of my patients to keep a complete list in their wallet of all the prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and dietary supplements they take, and update it whenever there’s a change. 

Ideally, this is something you should take care of well in advance of your appointment. One of my patients, for instance, writes her list on an index card cut in half, then covers it with clear, extra-wide packing tape. People who prefer computerized lists can use a free software program like My Medication Tracker, or a simple text file. That’s how one of my favorite patients has been keeping me updated for the past 10 years, and he’s 94! If you haven’t planned ahead, though, now’s a good time to get started.

4. Ask the office to check on your test results . We’re better able to give you answers during your visit if we have all your test results on hand, something that can’t be taken for granted in our fragmented system. If you’ve had any tests done since your last visit— laboratory work, scans, X-rays—ask the receptionist to see if the results are on file. If not, there may still be time to get the reports faxed to the office before your appointment starts.

5. Confirm that the office has the correct insurance information. We need this to get pre-authorizations for diagnostic tests and referrals to specialists, and to make sure that billing goes smoothly. Incorrect or expired information can hold up your treatment and lead to billing hassles later for you and your doctor.

6. Read something besides the magazines. In addition to brochures and pamphlets from patient organizations, waiting rooms often have reprints of articles we’ve found particularly helpful. While the Internet can be a great source of medical information, much of the material in our offices provides the added advantage of having been vetted. Just make sure you check the source; pharmaceutical company sales representatives like to leave promotional material, and they don’t always ask for permission.

—Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser, Consumer Reports

This article first appeared in our January 2010 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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