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By Grace Birnstengel for Next Avenue

Navigating the medical system can be a daunting process. It’s challenging enough to find any doctor with openings, let alone a good doctor. And the internet isn’t always much help.

What is helpful, however, is this in-depth guide to having a good doctor’s appointment written for The New York Times by Dr. Danielle Ofri, author and associate professor of medicine at New York University.

“As a doctor I often get asked by friends and family how to make the most of a medical visit,” she wrote.

Ofri’s advice applies firsthand to you as a patient but is also useful from the position of a family member or a caregiver. The guide reads like an insider’s perspective, and having tips and tricks written by a doctor is invaluable information.

Ofri breaks the appointment down into four major parts: finding the doctor, preparing for your appointment, what happens during the appointment and then afterward.

Finding the Right Doctor and Clinic

Ofri accurately points out that it feels easier to select things like blenders than a doctor. You can find pages of reviews online for other service providers like hair stylists and mechanics, but reviews for medical professionals are harder to come by.

Here are some of Ofri’s top tips to find the right care provider:

  • Start by seeing which doctors in your insurance network are conveniently located.
    • If you don’t have insurance, check out local clinics and health centers that might have sliding-scale fees or payment plans.
    • Ask for doctor recommendations from friends who have more experience with the medical system.
    • Decide if you prefer a small or large practice, but know that ultimately, “who your individual doctor is matters more than the practice,” Ofri said.

How to Prepare for a Doctor’s Appointment

Once you’ve selected a doctor and nailed down an appointment, there are steps you can take before your visit to aim for the best experience possible.

First, set your goals. Here are the questions Ofri recommends asking yourself before your appointment:

  • Is this going to be a check-up?
    • Is this a “maintenance visit” for your ongoing medical issues?
    • Is there a new symptom or problem you need to bring up?
    • Do you need to talk about big events in the near future? (End-of-life preferences, potential diet or lifestyle changes, etc.)

It’s important to be realistic about what you can accomplish at a single doctor’s appointment. Many of us have laundry lists of items we want to discuss with a doctor, but Ofri suggests picking out the two or three most important issues to focus on. Quality over quantity, she said.

And as always, bring relevant health records and test results, medications and insurance information.

Getting the Most Out of the Appointment

You’ve made it to the doctor’s office. Remember: Appointments are a two-way conversation, and communication is everything.

At Next Avenue, we’ve covered the commonly expressed frustrations with the lack of time doctors spend listening to their patients.

“Not only is this frustrating, it could potentially damage your health in the long term if you don’t get treatment or undergo an unsuitable treatment,” Next Avenue’s Susan Johnston Taylor wrote in a story about standing up for yourself at the doctor’s office. “That’s why self-advocacy is an important skill for anyone navigating the medical system.”

While Ofri asks patients to be patient with the multi-tasking a doctor faces with electronic medical records (EMR), if you’re feeling outright ignored, it’s time to say something.

“Some doctors can listen well while they are typing, but if your doctor does not appear to be listening to you, you are well within your right to politely acknowledge that,” Ofri said. “You could say something like, ‘I know that you have to write this all down in the computer, but if you could give me one minute of your full attention, I’ll tell you the important stuff as concisely as possible.’”

Some of Ofri’s other during-the-appointment tips: keep track of time to make sure your top items are being covered; resist sharing new concerns at the last minute (instead, set up another appointment, phone call or email through a patient portal) and don’t leave until you completely understand your treatment plan.

Time to Reflect

Your experience with your doctor doesn’t end after your appointment. It’s critical to reflect on the time you spent there to decide how to move forward. Here are some questions Ofri recommends asking yourself, even on the way home from the doctor:

  • Did you get your questions answered?
    • Did you cover your three most important issues?
    • Do you know what you are supposed to do now? (Which meds to take? Which tests to have? Which specialists to see?)

Follow through on the plan you set out with your doctor. If you have more questions, find a way to get in touch. And ultimately, if things didn’t work out as planned, know that it’s OK to close the door on one provider and go through this process again with another.

“A relationship with a doctor is like any relationship, and you need to feel that it’s the right one,” Ofri wrote. “If something doesn’t feel right, that’s worth paying attention to. After all, you are entrusting this person with your life.”

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