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The six keys to preparing for a doctor's appointment

Lupus Foundation of America

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If you’re not feeling well—especially if you haven’t felt like yourself for a few months or more—you’re probably looking for answers. If your symptoms come and go, and change over time, and it seems like there’s always something wrong, you might be developing a medical condition that needs treatment and ongoing medical care. Lupus is one example of a disease with signs and symptoms that can mimic other illnesses, and can be hard to diagnose.

If you haven’t seen your regular primary care doctor lately, now is the time to make an appointment. When you call, tell the nurse or receptionist that you’ve been having ongoing health problems, and you’d like an appointment to discuss your symptoms. If you’ve been seeing different doctors without getting answers, ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a rheumatologist.

At this appointment you’ll give your doctor as much information as you can about your symptoms. However, in today's managed health care system, the time you spend with your doctor is often very short. That’s why being prepared for the appointment is the best way to help your doctor help you.

Good preparation will also help to lessen any anxiety you may be feeling about the diagnostic process. Follow these six tips to make the most of your doctor’s appointment.

1. Organize your medical history

The greatest part of your doctor’s understanding of what’s happening in your body will be based on your description of your symptoms—both now and in the past. While the doctor also needs to examine you and look at results of your laboratory and imaging tests, your personal history gives valuable information.

The more organized your medical history is, the easier it will be for your doctor to begin to consider possible reasons for your health complications. These suggestions can help you stay organized:

  • Keep a journal of your symptoms. Include a timeline and descriptions of symptoms, including those that have disappeared. This checklist will help.
  • Ask your spouse, a relative or friend to help you prepare for the discussion with your doctor. You may also want her or him to go with you to the appointment to help you explain your symptoms and when they occurred, and to help you take notes.
  • Be specific. When you talk to the doctor, be as specific as you can about each symptom, when it occurred, and how it affected you.

2. Anticipate what the doctor will ask

These questions apply to most symptoms, so think ahead about how you would answer them:

  • When did the symptom start?
  • Is this a new symptom or has it happened before? If so, when? How often?
  • Does anything trigger it, make it better, or make it worse?
  • Is it present every day, or does it come and go?
  • Is it worst in the morning, as the day goes on, at night, or is it constant?
  • Does it interfere with your daily routine?
  • If the symptom is causing pain, how severe is the pain on a scale of 1 to 10? (10 being the most pain you’ve ever had)

3. Know your medications and dietary supplements

Your doctor needs to know what medications you’re taking, including those prescribed by other doctors and any dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc.). Bring ALL your medications and dietary supplements—prescription and non-prescription—in their original containers. This way the doctor understands the dosage you’re taking, how often you’re taking it, and the refill schedule. 

If you have a prescribed medication or dietary supplement that you’re not taking for some reason (side effects, cost, or another reason), tell the doctor that, too. Any side effects you’ve noticed after taking a product should also be reported.

4. Bring your medical records

To get a full picture of your past medical history, your doctor relies on copies of medical records from other doctors. You can either have these sent before your appointment or you can bring copies with you. You should also bring the results of any imaging studies such as X-rays or MRIs. 

Most doctors’ offices and imaging centers require you to sign a form that allows your records to be sent to the new doctor. Not every office will contact you beforehand to arrange for the transfer of records, so you’ll need to ask how these arrangements should be made. The successful transfer of your records can help you avoid the expense (and potential medical risk) of repeat diagnostic tests.

5. Ask for answers to these questions

  • Are there any other tests you need me to have done to help you decide on my diagnosis?
  • Based on what you know so far, are there any medical conditions that you can rule out?
  • Based on what you know so far, are there any new symptoms that I need to watch out for and tell you about?
  • Is there anything I can do at this time to feel better? (For example, change sleep habits or diet; try a new medication; add a particular wellness activity such as deep breathing or tai chi; see a specialist doctor)
  • Is there anything I should not do at this time? (For example, get  pregnant; take a long trip with a lot of sitting; start a new job or other stressful situation; participate in something very physical like a marathon) 

6. Request a visit summary and follow-up instructions

At the end of an appointment, your doctor will go over what was discussed, decisions made about treatments (if any), and any suggested changes to your medications. However, doctors who are hurrying to stay on schedule (or are already behind schedule) may accidentally forget to do this or not fully explain what you need to know. 

It’s OK to remind your doctor to: 
  • Give you a  brief verbal summary of what has been discussed (diagnoses possibilities or diagnoses ruled out; symptoms to look out for; activities to do or not do)
  • Let you know of any kind of follow-up you need to do now, including any forms for new lab tests
  • Tell you when you should have your next appointment

Every doctor's appointment is your opportunity to explain and discuss your problems and concerns with someone whose job is to listen and to help. The better prepared you are for the appointment, the better you will feel about the experience, and the closer you’ll be to receiving an accurate and timely diagnosis. 

Remember: when you choose to work with your doctor to understand and manage your health, you both become members of the most important team of all: Team You!

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