Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Barring an emergency or urgent healthcare need, many choose not to see their primary care physician or other healthcare professionals. For those maintaining a healthy lifestyle and are in good health, a yearly check-up may be all that's needed. For others, they may need closer supervision from their healthcare team to ensure they obtain the appropriate plan of care and that their concerns are being addressed. Despite the state of one's health, the common denominator is the same - the interaction between the healthcare professional and the patient.
As a physical therapist but also a consumer of healthcare, let me share both perspectives that can enhance your visit with any healthcare professional. Take the next few moments to read how to maximize your interaction so that you are heard and that your needs are being met.
First, let me take you behind the curtain to understand the perspective of a physician, surgeon, therapist, or nurse. We may or may not be limited in how much time we are able to spend with you. This can vary depending on what type of healthcare professional you are seeing or what you are being seen for. That being said, the first portion of a visit is what is called the subjective, or interview. Due to potential time constraints, it's our duty to first listen to your story and then extract the necessary and relevant information about you and your concerns so that together we are able to choose the best path forward. Read tips #1-5 to maximize the time you spend with your healthcare provider.
Tip #1: Be prepared.
Typically, the first question is something along the lines of "Tell me what brings you in today?". This gives you time to share the history and details that are important to you. This allows the healthcare professional to pick out the most relevant information and then ask follow-up questions. As a physical therapist, some simple, but predictable questions I may ask you might be:
"When did this particular problem start? Is this new? Is this persistent (chronic)?"
"Does it come and go?"
"How is this affecting you throughout your day?"
"What symptoms are you experiencing" "Where are you experiencing symptoms?" "Have you experienced any patterns to your symptoms?"
"What makes your symptoms better? What makes them worse?
"How is this influencing your ability to perform day-to-day activities?"
So come to your appointment anticipating these types of questions with the answers being clear in your mind. Or if you get frozen and forget to mention things, write it down. Telling us your story in a historical, or sequential way through time will likely give us the clearest picture of how you got to where you are today.
Tip #2: Stay on Track.
Most doctors, nurses, therapists, etc. pursue their fields because they want to connect with people and make a positive impact on their patient's lives. Not only do we want to know why you're in front of us, but we also want to know you. Meaningful interactions between providers and patients should be conversational, informative, and empowering versus robotic and transactional. That being said, it's important to stay on track. Because time may or may not be limited, it's best to share pertinent information and give each other time to give and take. Please resist the urge to go off on a tangent into a long story about how Aunt Marge lost her dog in the dead-of-winter, but you didn't have shoes so you wore your slippers and then you found little Betsy, but locked your keys in the car and had to call the police to come to pick you up and how you were so embarrassed because you got picked up in a cop car. (I'm only kidding!) :)
Personally, I love patient's stories. The better we can connect - the better your outcome will be. So if I sense that we are getting off track, I will gently nudge our conversation back towards its intended target or tactfully interject so I can best help you.
Tip #3: Be Candid and Honest.
First of all, Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. Healthcare professionals have either seen or heard it all in the clinic before. That may sound dismissive, but what may seem unique to you may be similar to what hundreds of other patients have experienced. It's better to be open and candid about what's been going on than to hide. It may even expose relevant information that may alter what type of exam, diagnostics, or treatment may be most appropriate.
Second, don't feel unwise. You are smart and you know your own experiences and your own body better than anyone. It's yours, after all! Many people will turn to "Dr. Google" for their answers because that's what anyone would do. Patients want to be informed healthcare consumers and be armed with knowledge prior to their visit so they don't feel "dumb". Personally, I appreciate it when patients ask me about things they've read on the internet. It provides a ground-work for me to understand what patients know or don't know. An experienced practitioner, after hearing that you've done a thorough internet search, may ask "Tell me what you've learned about _(blank)_ so that I can help you better."
Tip #4: Ask Questions
Healthcare professionals can be guilty of speaking too quickly, over-explaining, or using too much medical jargon. People can leave their appointment thinking "What did he/she say again?" "What am I supposed to do?" "What do these results mean?". Don't be afraid to interject and ask your provider to repeat something that doesn't make sense so you can understand it better. That being said, all people learn differently so you may even need to ask them for additional information to read later, a picture to help visualize, or a demonstration (if applicable). The analogy I like to use is that if we are both looking at a map, we both need to know the path and destination ahead so no-one gets lost. Sometimes healthcare is a journey between the provider and the patients - so ask questions, but trust your provider.
Tip #5: Take Notes
Most patients will remember the main points and details of their visit, but if you're like me, my wife will ask me "What did the doctor say?" and it might be followed by a blank stare. That's why I sometimes write on a little piece of paper and take notes or text/e-mail myself immediately after my encounter so it is still fresh in my head. This may be of some utility to you to do the same. A lot can be discussed during a visit, so don't feel afraid to write things down to refer to later.
For individuals who struggle with memory or cognitive impairments, it might be best to have a friend or family member come with you to remember relevant details and instructions (strength in numbers!). If that is not available to you, ask your provider if it's ok to record what they are saying on your phone so you can go back to listen to it again or have someone listening on the other end of the phone if they are unable to attend your appointment with you. That being said, most providers will either send a message to you via a secure message portal or through an e-mail with a visit summary or instructions after your appointment.
To review: Be prepared. Stay on track. Be candid and honest. Ask questions. Take notes.
By utilizing these tips outlined above you will feel more confident in your future appointments feeling heard with the knowledge you need to understand the plan ahead and feel empowered to manage your own health.
Yours in health,
Dr. Eric Brown, PT, DPT, OCS
Physical Therapist & Board-Certified Specialist in Orthopedics
Movement Restoration | Sioux Falls, SD