Questions for your doctorWhen’s the last time you went shopping and forgot to pick up something you really needed? It’s frustrating when your memory fails you at the store, but it can be even worse if that lapse hits in the doctor’s office. With the average length of a doctor’s visit shrinking (from 22 minutes in 2007 to 11-15 minutes in 2010), you’ll want to be sure you make the most of that time.

Prepare for your next appointment with these six tips:

1. List questions for your doctor.

Most people have at least one or two lingering questions for their doctors, even if they’re otherwise healthy. If you’ve noticed a change in your health (your feet are always cold at night, you get headaches while driving, etc.) you’ll want to mention them during your appointment. Think ahead and come up with a list of questions or concerns and write them down (just like that grocery list).

“Decide what your priorities are and try to focus on a maximum of three or four per visit,” suggests Dr. Marc Itskowitz, Director of Didactic Education at Allegheny General Hospital.

Not sure what to ask?

  • Check out our Questions to Ask Your Doctor booklet (PDF).
  • Ask close friends or family members if they’ve noticed changes in your health.
  • Consider these health questions:
    • A major health concern, such as a lump or illness
    • Preventive care needs, e.g., immunizations, mammograms, or other age-appropriate screenings
    • Questions about your current medications
    • Information about a medical test or surgery you’re considering
    • Changes in your sleep, appetite, etc., and whether they’re normal
    • General questions about how to live a healthier lifestyle

2. Bring a list of all of your medications.

Come to your appointment with a complete list of the medications you’re taking, including the dosing information. Don’t forget to include any herbal remedies or vitamins you take on a regular basis. Once a year, Dr. Itskowitz asks his patients to bring the actual medications to an appointment. If you’d like, you can also store information about your medications digitally through a Personal Health Record like the one we offer on our Highmark Member website (you can find the URL on your Member ID card). You’ll also need to tell your doctor if you’re taking these prescriptions regularly as prescribed, or if you’ve lapsed on one or more of them. It’s important to make sure your doctor knows exactly what you’re taking, how much and how often.

If you’re doing any testing at home, be sure you come prepared with that information, too.

“If you have a blood pressure machine or glucose meter at home, bring them to your appointment so we can take a look at your results over time,” advises Dr. Itskowitz.

3. Make sure you can see, hear and understand.

If you use glasses or a hearing aid, make sure you have them at your doctor’s appointment. You’ll want to be able to see and hear as well as possible to make it a productive appointment.

If you don’t speak English or prefer to speak another language, you should inform your doctor’s office in advance of the appointment. The office manager may have advice or may be able to schedule an interpreter.

4. Update the doctor with your health information.

It’s important to tell your doctor about any health issues that come up between visits. For example, if you visited the emergency room or saw a specialist, you should mention it. While they may have access to this information through your health record, you should make sure they’re aware.  Don’t assume they’ve gotten the details from another provider or medical facility.

Remember your doctor is a professional; you’ll want to be honest about any health issues you’re experiencing – even if they’re embarrassing – so he or she can help you.

5. Take notes during your visit.

Bring paper and pen (or your favorite electronic substitute) and take notes. If you’re having trouble with your notes, it may be a sign you don’t fully understand what’s going on. If you realize that in the moment, you can ask questions on the spot. You can also refer to your notes at home to make sure you’ve remembered everything discussed during your appointment.

“You can also bring a family member or friend to be a second set of ears during your appointment,” says Dr. Itskowitz. “He or she can help you understand the health issues we’re discussing.”

6. Ask questions and ask for easier-to-read materials.

On a related note, never be afraid to admit you don’t understand something! Part of your doctor’s job is to make sure you understand your health and health care. Speak up and ask questions! Likewise, if your doctor gives you a brochure you don’t understand, see if he or she can explain the material or find an easier-to-understand version.

Going to the doctor is much more productive if you’ve done a little preparation. Above all else, your doctor needs to get a complete picture of your health–and convey their advice to you in a way you understand. Use these tips and you’ll be well on your way to a successful appointment.

What’s your best tip for getting ready to go to the doctor? Let us know in the comments!


Dr. Marc Itskowitz is an internal medicine specialist affiliated with Allegheny General Hospital. He has expertise in geriatrics, nutrition, and travel medicine. He is also an associate professor of medicine at both Temple and Drexel Universities.