Consultations with doctors - how to get the best from them

Written by: 
Dr Kieran Walsh

How to get the most out of your time with the doctor.

Going to see the doctor is not easy for some people. They may be nervous that they have something wrong that might be painful or uncomfortable, or could even prove to be a serious threat to their health.

At the clinic there often seems to be insufficient time - in many places an average consultation with a doctor lasts only about 10 minutes and as a patient you are often aware that there are several other people in the waiting room outside, many of whom seem older, frailer or sicker than you are.

How do you make sure that you will get the most from a doctor's appointment? There are a few steps you can take to increase the likelihood that you will leave with the right diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have., the right treatment and a feeling of relief and reassurance.

Once the diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. is clear, you may be in a position at the end of the consultation to make a joint decision with your doctor about the best next steps

There are no set rules as to how to behave during a consultation. You may want to talk through your options, or you may prefer to let the doctor take charge and simply follow instructions. You might feel too unwell to do anything but take the medicine as prescribed, or you may want to come back when you have had time to consider what has been said. There is no set pattern that must be followed - it is your consultation and up to you to decide what you are most comfortable in doing or saying.

There are several stages to a typical consultation or series of consultations:

Telling the doctor what is wrong

As a first step it is important to try to give the doctor all the information that is needed:

  • A full description of your symptoms is important. If you have pain, for example, it helps to be ready to tell the doctor just how long you've had the pain, what it feels like, where it is, whether it goes anywhere else, what makes it better, what makes it worse, whether there are any other symptoms accompanying it (such as nausea), and whether you have ever had a similar pain in the past
  • If you have many symptoms, it can be helpful to make a list of them and bring it along - it is easy to forget important pieces of information in the heat of the moment
  • If you are taking any tablets or other medicines, including herbal remedies, it can be helpful to bring them with you or at least bring a list of what you are taking
  • It is best to mention any previous illnesses, even if they seem to you to be unrelated.

Being examined by the doctor

After asking some questions the doctor will often need to examine you. This can be a worry for some people, particularly if they think they have an embarrassing problem such as a skin rash.

It may be a good idea to ask for a chaperone if you think you will feel uncomfortable during any part of the examination.
It can be helpful to remember that the doctor is a professional and will have seen it all before. The doctor actively wants to examine anything relevant to what is troubling you.

Having tests

Sometimes the results of a test are available immediately - for example, if you have your blood pressure measured.

For other tests you may need to wait for the results, for example if a bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. test needs to be sent to the laboratory. Sometimes you may need to go somewhere else for a test, for example to have an X-rayA type of electromagnetic radiation used to produce images of the body. or scan at the local hospital. It is important to be sure before you leave that you know when and how to get the results of any tests.

Being told the doctor's diagnosis

After discussing your health and examining you, the doctor may now be in a position to tell you what is wrong and perhaps prescribe some treatment.

For some people this is the most stressful part of the consultation. The doctor may use strange unfamiliar words, the writing on the prescription pad may be illegible, or you may not fully understand the information.

If you disagree with your doctor's interpretation of the problem, it can be difficult to query or challenge the decision.

Some people feel highly stressed at seeing the doctor and are not able to think of a single thing they want to ask - even though they know that they are confused about what is wrong with them.

It can help to write down questions before going to the doctor. Doctors are used to this and will not be surprised or annoyed if you take out a list of questions.

It can also be helpful to have support - perhaps your spouse or another relative could come with you and support you in asking questions, or ask them on your behalf.

If you do not understand anything, it is best to say so and ask the doctor to explain the diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. again in simpler language. The doctor may be able to give you a handout describing the illness or treatment in straightforward terms, or may be able to suggest other sources of information and support.

The following basic questions can help in a wide range of situations:

  • What is wrong with me?
  • Is there anything else it could be?
  • What treatment should I take?
  • How long should I take it for?
  • Are there any side effects of the medications?
  • Will I get better soon?
  • Can anyone catch this illness from me?
  • Will I pass this problem on to my children?

You might have read about your symptoms in books or on the internet before seeing the doctor. It can be useful to ask about this information. Doctors and other health professionals are used to patients bringing along internet printouts of information to clarify facts that they do not understand. It is important not to take too much printed material with you however, as the doctor probably will not have time to read it all.

Making a joint decision

Once the diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. is clear, you may be in a position at the end of the consultation to make a joint decision with your doctor about the best next steps.

You can ask the doctor whether there is any doubt about what is the best treatment and if you have any choices.

For example, if you are diagnosed with fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. your doctor may discuss with you the potential benefits and risks of anti-fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. drugs. Together you can come to a decision that best suits your set of circumstances:

  • If you are young, fit and healthy and don't like taking tablets, then you could perhaps come to the conclusion that you are better allowing your body to fight off the fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. using its own natural defence mechanisms
  • If you have a chest or heart condition or a problem with your immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection. (the system that defends your body from infections), taking the anti-fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. drugs may be the best decision for you.

If you are not sure of the best course of action by the end of the consultation, it may help to ask your doctor if you can make another appointment when you have had time to think about what has been said.