How Can I Help My Doctor?

Last Editorial Review: 2/1/2005
Medical Author: Dennis Lee, M.D.

During the past decade, we have witnessed unprecedented advances in medical knowledge and technology. Many new medications are becoming available for both the treatment and prevention of diseases. Newly developed tests are not only more accurate, but are also quicker and more tolerable than the older techniques. Some conditions that formerly required major surgeries and prolonged hospitalizations are being corrected by minimally invasive procedures with an overnight hospital stay. This exciting pace of medical innovations shows no sign of letting up.

Meanwhile, many doctors and patients alike are disenchanted with the healthcare delivery system in our country. Doctors are frustrated by the regulatory burden and frequently complain that their time to care for their patients is limited. Additionally, many patients feel that they are not receiving the timely and quality care they deserve.

There is no quick remedy for our ailing medical delivery system. However, doctors and patients should work together to improve their relationship. Both parties can accomplish this through better patient education, more open communication, and a lot of patience and understanding. Traditionally, it is the doctors' responsibility to establish trusting relationships with their patients. However, there are a number of steps that patients can and should take to help themselves and their doctors.

How can I help my doctor?

You can help your doctor by organizing your medical history prior to your doctor's visit. Here is how:

  1. Pay attention to your symptom(s). What is the location, duration, and character of the discomfort? What brings them on? What aggravates them? What relieves them?

  2. List all your medications and dosing schedules. Include all prescription and nonprescription medications, supplements, vitamins, herbs, and minerals. You might bring them with you to show your doctor. That way, if there are questions about the dosing, there is no confusion.

  3. List prior and current medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks , or cancers.

  4. List prior surgeries (appendectomy, hysterectomy, knee replacement, etc.), procedures (colonoscopy, mammography, upper GI x-rays, etc.), and hospitalizations. Bring any hospitalization records and procedure reports in your possession.

What questions to ask my doctor?

  1. What do you think is causing my problem?

  2. Is there more than one condition (disease) that could be causing my problem?

  3. What tests will you do to diagnose my problem and which of the underlying conditions is present?

  4. How accurate are the tests for diagnosing the problem and the conditions?

  5. How safe are the tests?

  6. What is the likely course of this condition? What is the long-term outlook with and without treatment?

  7. What are my treatment options? How effective is each treatment option? What are the benefits versus the risks of each treatment option?

  8. If my symptoms worsen, what should I do on my own? When should I contact you?

  9. Are you aware of each of the medications that I am taking? Can they adversely interact with the medications you are prescribing for me?

  10. Should we monitor for side effects of the medications that you are prescribing or for their interactions with other medications I am taking?

 How about follow-up care?  

Arriving at an accurate diagnosis and optimal treatment often takes time and may require repeated visits and tests. Be patient and communicate with your doctor. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Do not stop prescribed medications on your own, even if your symptoms have resolved. If your prescription runs out, ask your doctor whether you should obtain a refill.

  2. If the prescribed treatment is not helping you, or is causing side effects, inform your doctor right away. He/she may have to rethink the diagnosis and/or change the treatment.
  3. If the doctor cannot offer you a firm diagnosis or help you with your symptoms despite repeated visits, it is OK to ask for another opinion. Most doctors will be glad to help their patients solicit second opinions or specialty consultations.
  4. Always ask your doctor about your test results. Never assume that everything must be fine if you do not hear from the doctor's office.
  5. Inform your doctor if you are using alternative medicine or non-prescription remedies because some of these remedies may interact with your prescribed medications. 

  6. Educate yourself with credible and authoritative medical information. Increasing your own knowledge about the characteristics of your particular condition, your medications, and their side effects can benefit you, your family, and your doctor. Information about your condition may be provided by your doctor. You can also find valuable information on the Internet. Be certain to look for credible websites.

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