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Getting the most from your next medical visit

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By Erin A. Bills, MPH Contributor

With the arrival of the New Year, many make a resolution to live a happy, healthier and a more active lifestyle. Part of this resolution should include making an annual appointment with your primary care physician or other medical provider. Taking full advantage of the limited time in your appointment will help improve the doctor-patient relationship and ultimately lead to better care for you and your family.

To get the most from medical appointments, patients must take an active role and get involved in their own healthcare. Medical appointments can be both stressful and sometimes intimidating; however, coming prepared to provide information and ask questions will make the process more beneficial. There are several things you can do to improve your visit before the actual appointment.

To start, write down all medications and dosages you’re currently taking. This list should include any prescriptions, over-the-counter medications or supplements. It’s also a good idea to jot down any questions or concerns, to help ensure they’re addressed. In order to properly address health issues you may be experiencing, or those that you may be trying to prevent, your medical provider needs to gather information about you and your health. Since the time spent with your provider is limited, you should prioritize your questions.

If at any time during your visit you feel confused, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification or additional information. The only stupid questions are those that aren’t asked. Basic example questions might include: What’s causing my symptoms? Will I need additional testing? Do I need to see a specialist? Are there alternative care options? Is a generic form of the medication prescribed available? Is there anything I should avoid doing? Is there anything I should try to do more frequently? What lifestyle changes I can make to help prevent future health problems?

There are also questions you can expect your doctor to ask you, in order to gain a snapshot of your health. Being prepared to answer these can improve the quality of that snapshot. Typically, your doctor will want to know the onset, duration, severity, exacerbating, or relieving features of symptoms. Knowing when you first experienced symptoms, how long they last, the severity, what seems to make them worse, and what seems to alleviate them can be extremely helpful during the diagnosis process or in developing a preventive health plan.

Taking an inventory of your social health may also be part of a medical visit. Social health is a key component of overall health. Your doctor may ask you if you’re married, divorced, employed or unemployed. Do you smoke? If so, how often? He or she might also ask you what you enjoy doing, or if you’re experiencing stress. Do you use alcohol or drugs? These questions are not meant to be invasive—instead, they’re meant to find out more about you and the environment you live in. Health is not just a series of physical symptoms.

Being well prepared to answer these questions may leave additional time to further clarify any points you may want to spend additional time on. Remember, you are responsible for your individual health. Taking an active role in your own healthcare may be the best practice in achieving your New Year’s resolution.

Erin A. Bills, MPH, works with the Montana Office of Rural Health/Area Health Education Center at Montana State University. She lives in Big Sky and is dedicated to improving the health of Montana’s rural populations. Follow her blog at

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