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Making the Most of Your Doctor’s Visits

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Through the years, many people have told me that they struggle with asking questions and getting answers from their doctors during a scheduled appointment time. Usually their perceived reason for this is either (1) their doctor does not spend enough time with them or (2) their own lack of preparation. I believe both of these issues can easily be addressed and resolved with enough forethought and proactivity.

For best results in finding answers to your very important questions (and also to your not so important questions), I would recommend several different things. First, make a list of your questions so that when you meet with your physician or a physician’s assistant, you cover all of your concerns. It’s not uncommon to forget to ask certain questions that seemed incredibly important at the time, but have since slipped your mind only to resurface again later. There’s a lot to think about when you or a loved one is sick. It’s not just the common questions and concerns individuals have regarding an ailment, but those that arise when the ailment worsens or affects others in the household, either physically or emotionally.

I’ve heard of numerous stories from people about the many questions that run through their minds in the eye of the storm of an illness. Yet when they get to their doctor’s appointment, they suddenly have little to ask because they are in the calm of the storm. However, they remember their burning questions when the storm of an illness strikes again (usually after business hours). This illness may be physical or emotional. It may be slight or severe. In any case, nothing is more frustrating then getting to a doctor’s appointment when you or a loved one is not currently exhibiting the signs and symptoms that brought you in to see the doctor in the first place. How can the doctor understand the ailment when it has suddenly disappeared? We can try to explain the problem, but it’s better if we can SHOW the problem—or so we think.

This predicament reminds me of when a person has car trouble. Imagine being on the freeway and your engine light goes on. You’re not sure if you should pull over to the side of the road, head for the nearest gas station, or take your chances and try to make it to your final destination. You decide to go for it and luckily, you make it to your final destination. During this trip, you are nervous. You are uncertain what will happen along the way and hope for the best. You have no choice but to ignore the clanking noise, squeaking sound, and suspicious smell that filters into your car.

The next day you’re forced to miss work, rearrange your schedule, and bring your car in for a check up. You notice on your way to the mechanic’s shop that your engine light has miraculously turned itself off. You assure the technician that it was on the day before. However, despite your assurance, after a quick test ride, he tells you there is absolutely nothing wrong with your car.

Puzzled, you leave for work and on your way to the office, you notice the unpredictable engine light goes on once again. It’s then that you realize you forgot to ask the technician about the sounds and smell that were present while driving yesterday. With these problems re-emerging and your car stalling on the freeway, they’re suddenly on the forefront of your mind. With this new information, the technician is able to better assess the problem and find a cause.

When asking questions, give as much detail as possible to those with whom you are speaking. Remember every individual is different. What may be the case for you or your loved one may not be the case for someone else. Also, be sure to ask every question you have (i.e. the importance of making a list). If you have concerns, no matter how great or small, voice them. Entitle yourself to information that will calm your fears and potentially diminish distress.

The most common reason that people do not ask questions is that they forget them. The second most common reason is because people think their questions are insignificant, unimportant, or “silly.” Remember there is no such thing as a “dumb” question.

If you’re worried about a loved one’s illness, frequently, it’s the questions that do not pertain directly to them, but rather to ourselves, that we’re reluctant to ask. Concerns pertaining to you as a spouse, parent, or family member are just as significant as those pertaining to the ill person. For example, I recall a specific concern that I had right after my baby was born. I was waiting for my breast milk to come in. Because this concern had more to do with me at the time than it did for my baby, I was reluctant to voice it. However, I eventually did address this concern with my OB/GYN and received an incredibly helpful tip.

My concern had to do with breast engorgement. While waiting for my breast milk to come in, my breasts became so engorged that I was in excruciating pain. They were swollen to about the size of footballs, as hard as rocks, black and blue, and so hot that I swear you could have cooked eggs on them. I was told by varying sources not to pump because this could prolong the engorgement phase. Therefore, I struggled with this pain believing I had no other choice. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and made a doctor’s appointment.

My doctor listed the usual remedies—ice packs, Tylenol, warm compresses, and hot showers, which were not working well for me. So I decided to ask the women in the waiting room if they had any secret cures. Remember, no question is a dumb question, especially when others are experts by their own experiences. One woman responded with something that I had never heard before. She recommended that I buy a head of cabbage. She stated that stuffing cabbage leaves into my nursing bras would ease the pain. They absorbed the heat, decreased the swelling, and relieved the bruising. Who would have thought that a vegetable could provide such a wonderful service to the nursing mother? If I didn’t have the courage to ask, I would have never known.

Don’t be afraid to assert yourself and ask questions. One thing that I have found to be extremely helpful is when you let your doctor know ahead of time that you have several questions for him or her at your scheduled appointment. Some doctors appreciate a fax or e-mail of the questions prior to the office visit or consultation. This gives them time to prepare any important information that they may want to share with you in either verbal or written form.

Selecting a doctor that you’re comfortable with is also important. Let your doctor know what you are looking for and make sure that it is a good fit between the two of you. Doctors run their practices differently. Find a practice that meets your needs. I find it interesting that almost all parents research and interview pediatricians to find just the right doctor for their child, but often do not do the same for themselves. Take the time to find the right person for you and your loved ones.


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