Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: How do I get the most out of my relationship with my primary care physician? The appointments are so short these days, and I want to be smart about the way I use the time.

Dear Reader: That's a great question. As fellow patients who see our own physicians, we share your concerns. And as primary care physicians, we are keenly aware of the need to structure an office visit to make every minute count.

Here, drawn from what we do in our own practices, as well as thoughts from fellow physicians, are some ideas to help maximize the time you have with your physician.

-- Consider timing: Be strategic when making your appointment. Monday and Friday tend to be busiest. The first appointments of the morning are least likely to have a wait time, and your physician won't be feeling as rushed. And please, arrive early!

-- Plan ahead: Write down and prioritize your health concerns. Be prepared to describe them succinctly. Symptoms can be physical, mental and emotional. Include details like when the symptom began, how long it lasts, anything that makes it better or worse, and what you are worried about.

-- Look at the big picture: Bring a complete list of the medications you are taking, including supplements. Be sure to include specific dosages. If it's easier, bring the bottles themselves. If you have recently stopped taking a medication, be sure to include it in the list as well. If you have undergone testing with other providers, tell your primary care physician what prompted the tests and provide a copy of the results.

-- Be a partner: Let your physician know your specific goals for the visit. This allows him or her to manage time wisely and efficiently. Take notes. A lot of information is imparted during a medical appointment, and it's easy to miss important details. Some patients bring a spouse, relative or friend to be another set of eyes and ears.

-- Be assertive: If your physician says something you don't understand, ask him or her to repeat it. If you feel you are not being understood or heard, say so. When you require more time than a visit allows, ask whether a nurse or physician's assistant in the office is available to further answer your questions.

-- Stay focused: Stick to the topic that brought you to the office. Spending the time delving thoroughly into your main health concerns will have the highest yield.

-- Stay connected: Ask your physician for the best way to reach him or her in the next few days, when new questions are likely to arise. Here at UCLA, we have a patient portal that allows our patients to reach us directly via email. Ask your physician whether that's an option. If not, learn your physician's preferred approach, which includes how to reach him or her in an emergency.

-- Keep the conversation going: If you feel your questions or concerns haven't been met, don't be afraid to schedule a follow-up visit.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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