5 Tips for a Smooth Doctor's Visit

Laura McMullen

An endless wait staring at cream-colored walls, a 1999 issue of Family Circle in hand, a slew of strangers coughing and sneezing next to you: Is this what you picture while scheduling a doctor's appointment? Or maybe it's the part after the wait that haunts you. Someone poking and prodding--drawing blood, even!--as you sit helplessly in a paper dress, your diagnosis spit at you in what seems like a foreign language. For some, doctor appointments carry a "Twilight Zone" vibe, but that doesn't have to be your fate. Handle your visits like a pro, and they'll seem less like nightmares and more like what they are: important, necessary and relatively painless health analyses.

Carolyn Clancy, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and Trisha Torrey, author of "You Bet Your Life! The 10 Mistakes Every Patient Makes" share their doctor appointment tips--from scheduling the first visit to following-up.

Snag a spot on the waiting list. Consider this familiar scenario: You buck up, put on the health-crusader pantaloons and call the medical office to schedule an appointment, only to find that the busy doctor can't see you for another couple months. Take the far-off appointment, but ask the receptionist to call you if there are any cancellations between now and then, Clancy suggests. And follow up. "It's surprising when you call a few times how often openings occur," she says. If you start feeling worse, call again and describe the changes in your symptoms. If you're really worried, of course, head to an urgent care clinic or emergency room.

Another pro tip: If your primary care doctor refers you to a specialist, ask your doctor if he can call and make the appointment. "If the doctor's office calls, you're going to get in a whole lot sooner," Torrey says.

Carefully pick the day and time of your appointment. To avoid waiting room purgatory, ask for the first appointment of the day, Torrey suggests. With no other patients scheduled before you, the doctor shouldn't be backed up at 8 a.m. Also, try to avoid Mondays and Fridays, Torrey says, which tend to be the busiest.

Do your homework. "It is extraordinarily important to write down your questions ahead of time," Clancy says. There are plenty of distractions that may arise during your appointment, so you may forget questions you don't jot down. Write questions concerning your current issue as well as those you anticipate having after the exam about, say, a prescribed medicine. "Is this generic or brand name?" "How much do you think this prescription costs?" This information is on the table for discussion, but it's likely you will need to broach the subject, not your doc. Another query to consider: "What symptom changes would warrant a follow-up visit?"

Also take notes before your appointment. "Make a very specific list about your symptoms, when they started to appear, how they've changed and possible triggers," Torrey suggests.

Be a squeaky wheel in the waiting room. If you've made that early, mid-week appointment, you may avoid the worst of the wait. If not, you may spend your afternoon reenacting Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit." Torrey advises to manage your time expectations. As you sign in, ask if the doctor is running behind and how long you'll likely wait. If the receptionist doesn't know, ask him to check. "They might check, and they might not, but why not ask?" says Torrey. Clancy adds: "Asking the question is sensitizing the office staff to the idea that your time is valuable." If you find the doctor is very behind, ask to reschedule the appointment.

Say the staff member says your wait will be 30 minutes. If it has been 32 minutes, start (gently) squeaking. Check in and ask again how much longer he expects you to wait. "You're not being overbearing or pushy; you're asking a question," Torrey says. "It should help speed things along a little bit. Not always, but it's worth a try." The same concept of managing your expectations holds true when you're in the examination room. Ask whoever led you there how long you'll likely wait.

Repeat after the doctor. If the doctor speaks above your head in medical jargon, don't just nod along with glazed eyes. This is your health--it's important to understand your diagnosis and treatment options, especially if you've waited a while to get an appointment and be seen. Torrey and Clancy advise repeating to the doctor what he or she has said so you're both on the same page. A patient can ask something like: "Can I try this in my own words so I make sure I understand?"

Learn how to reconnect after the appointment. Near the end of the appointment, Clancy suggests asking the doctor: "I know I'll have questions when I get home. What's the best way to reach you?" The doctor may have certain hours she takes calls, her nurse may take questions instead or she may be receptive to email. Knowing these communication preferences in advance will make it easier to follow up with important questions and possibly prevent a frustrating game of phone tag.