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Published December 11, 2013, 03:34 PM

Positively Beautiful: How to have a great visit with your doctor

Luckily, I don’t get sick very often. I get a flu shot every year, and think I’ve been “immunized” over the years to most other viruses.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, INFORUM

Luckily, I don’t get sick very often. I get a flu shot every year, and think I’ve been “immunized” over the years to most other viruses.

But I have been a patient several times, mostly since my right leg seems to magnetically attract mischief. I’ve also been a mom in a distant city emergency room at midnight until the wee hours with my son, who was feverish and coughing violently. Two days later we got a phone call regarding the chest X-ray that diagnosed pneumonia.

I have had mostly great interactions, but a few, such as our ER visit, have given me pause about how difficult our system can be.

But whether you have an urgent visit for tonsillitis, a twisted ankle, or a visit that’s been planned for months, it’s good to have a game plan to make the most of your time with your doctor.

Studies show that average primary care visits are stable at about 18 minutes, but they seem a lot shorter because so much takes place during the visit: nurse intake, vital signs, discussion, exam and documentation.

The electronic medical record has great value, but most doctors feel the keyboard can become a barrier because it diminishes eye contact with the patient.

Dr. Larry Mauksch, a University of Washington family doctor who studies doctor-patient communication, says frustration sets in because all of this decreases “the amount of time available for a meaningful exchange.”

As a doctor, mom and a patient, I’ve been thinking about what makes a health care visit a positive experience. With new health care legislation and the uncertainty that it brings for everyone, how can we make visits more meaningful?

A good doctor-patient relationship is important, and research shows better outcomes such as reduced pain for cancer patients and lower blood sugars in diabetics. Many, but not all, doctors are skilled communicators. Know that your own communication skills can greatly empower you and your doctor and his or her ability to care for you.

• Be prepared, and write it down.

Deciding ahead of time what you most want to get out of the visit will help you organize your thoughts and questions for your doctor.

If you are visiting a new doctor, bring a typed or neatly written health history and medication list. Include vitamins and supplements that you take.

• Make a fresh start.

If you are making a switch to a new doctor, it’s important to let them know about past care, and you may have legitimate concerns about it.

Put a positive spin on your previous frustrations and let them know how you’d like to be served. Be constructive with your criticism so your new doctor doesn’t feel defensive.

• Prioritize your list.

Most people bring three to six issues of concern to a visit. There may not be time to address them all in detail in one visit. Run through the list, but make sure you share what is most important to you and why.

Maybe you’ve had a nagging sore throat for a few weeks and know of a neighbor who was recently diagnosed with cancer and had similar symptoms.

Let your doctor know if certain symptoms are really activating your panic button and why, so they can put a bit more focus on those areas.

• Bring a book.

In an ideal world, everything would run like clockwork, and a little Zen chime would signify the beginning and the end of an appointment. All needs would be met and all questions answered.

But the reality is that sometimes we run late, and it’s rare that we are goofing around. A surgery can take longer or another patient can need a little extra time because of a difficult diagnosis.

But I also know it’s frustrating to be delayed, and it stresses me out to keep people waiting. Build in a little cushion of time if you can to make it less burdensome, and catch up on some reading or write a Christmas card or two.

• Be human. Build rapport with your doctor.

Some of my favorite moments with my patients are sharing brief stories about kids, pets, vacations and work. This builds a caring connection and is definitely a two-way street. Part of the joy of writing this column and opening a little window to my world is the feedback and conversations it sparks with patients.

• Bring a friend or family member if possible, especially if you are feeling miserable. Four ears are better than two. Your helper can take notes, or ask questions that you might not have considered.

• Be your own advocate.

Work with your doctor to make a plan. Repeat instructions to make sure you’ve got it, and write it down if possible.

Schedule a follow-up to assess how the treatment went or for any unfinished business.

If there was something we can do to make your experience better, let us know in a constructive way. We really have your best interests at heart and want to do better.

Be an active participant, not a passive recipient. I think a major part of health care reform should be self-care reform. Do what you need to do for a healthier, more vibrant life. We are here to help you do so. We are on your team.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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