Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit back, let your doctor tell you exactly what you needed to do, and know that you were always being cared for? Unfortunately, this isn’t realistic. Today, being passive could not only mean you getting less quality care – it could cost you your life.
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Smart patients ask smart questions, and they make an effort to at least try to understand that very basics about their health. Think about it: you, not your doctor, are ultimately responsible for your health.
Here are some of the top things you can do to make the most of every visit to your doctor:
1. You (and your spouse) know best. Know your personal medical history, write down any questions or concerns you have, and even feel free to bring your spouse or partner to your doctor’s appointment – there are a lot of questions that only a partner can answer (such as how many times an hour you stop breathing while asleep). But beware the doc’s sixth sense. When you tell the doctor that you rarely tear into the Cheetos after 8 p.m. or that you’ve been taking all your medication, your spouse will shoot you (or them) a look that says, “Are you kidding me?” Doctors don’t miss it. And hey, sometimes your spouse wants to blow your cover. It’s called love.
2. Tell the truth. It’s hard to tell the truth when it comes to the good and bad you do to yourself. That’s why doctors at least double, up or down, the most fudged claims. But for the sake of your health, try harder to be more honest.
3. There’s little a nurse doesn’t know. One way to find a great doctor is to grill the head ER or ICU nurse at the largest local hospital, preferably a teaching hospital. These nurses get a battlefield view of doctors at their best and worst. If you’re visiting someone in the hospital, you may be able to swing into the unit. If all hell isn’t breaking loose and the nurses have a few relatively quiet minutes, you’ll have a chance to politely approach one and make your inquiry. A nurse may say, “Well, to be honest, Dr. Addison is a complete jerk and everybody hates him, but if you’re in serious trouble, there’s nobody better.” Endorsements like this aren’t unusual in medicine.
4. Make friends with your pharmacist. Your pharmacist is the least expensive and most accessible health resource you have. While it might seem easier to forge a personal relationship with one pharmacist at a small mom-and-pop pill dispensary, smart patients can and do establish great relationships with superstore pharmacists too. You can see them anytime you want, without an appointment — all consultations free. In medicine, that’s extraordinary. Your pharmacist has an amazing wealth of knowledge at their fingertips. Many also have access to new technology that can answer questions quickly and reliably. What’s more, they get an outstanding view of patients with similar conditions using different medications every single day. They see who improves, and who complains about side effects.
5. Decipher the “script”. When your doctor hands you a script (that’s doctorspeak for “prescription”), they know you can’t understand those odd squiggles and abbreviations. Doctors typically write the name of the medicine first, then the form (say, capsule or tablet), dosage, amount (say, 30 tablets), directions for taking it, and finally the number of refills.
6. Don’t play the waiting game. When you’re anxious for test results, stop thinking that no news is good news. It’s no news – period. Too many patients wait for the doctor to call them with results, or they figure that silence means everything’s fine. Smart patients always ask when the results will likely be in, and they call the office that day. And the next day. And so on. Staying on top of your test results is an extra reminder for the doctor to call the lab if it’s running behind. A postcard from the lab may have been lost. And in a bustling office, records can sit for a day or two without the doctor’s knowledge.
7. Stand up to your insurance company. If a doctor doesn’t accept your insurance, but they are your top choice, don’t give up. Call the insurance company and ask if it would consider adding this doctor to the list. If it won’t, ask why. Sometimes, if even just a few patients ask the insurer to add a doctor, and the physician approves, the company will agree. Likewise, ask your doctor if you could persuade them to begin accepting your insurer. And every year when you renew your health insurance, call your doctor’s office and make sure it intends to keep accepting this insurance plan. Doctors can be swayed by just a few small factors. So ask.
8. Lessons from the past equal a brighter tomorrow. Consider having an autopsy performed on your parents when they pass away. Few are done today compared with decades ago, as it’s rarely thought necessary when a cause of death is clear. Although it can be expensive, there’s much value in knowing if your 82-year-old father has undiagnosed prostate cancer that had been advancing since his 50s, or if he had heart disease after succumbing to a stroke. This is especially useful if the death was due to an accident.
9. Surgery? Hunt for the specialist’s specialist. You want the surgeon who is obsessively focused on the exact technique you need done. Today, one surgeon can gain so much experience with one very specific surgery that their patients have fewer complications than the national average. Aside from asking your regular doctor to point you to the maestro of your surgery, doing Internet research can help you locate such a hyper-specialized surgeon. You just have to hope that one works at your hospital (and takes your insurance plan), or a road trip might be in store. And make sure your hospital is Joint Commission accredited for quality and safety.
10. There’s more than one doc involved in a surgery. If you’re having surgery in a hospital, you need to meet the anesthesiologist and let them know all about you, such as the last time you had general anesthesia, exactly how much you drink, what drugs you use and how often. The anesthesiologist also needs to know how physically fit you are, any allergies you have, and every medication, herbal remedy and supplement you take (even the ones you recreate with), since certain drugs can increase the amount of anesthesia needed – and you probably don’t want to be wide-awake when the surgeon asks for the knife. What about those nightmarish stories you’ve heard about patients waking up during surgery? It’s rare, but it happens. Talk to your anesthesiologist about this, and ask if a medical device that monitors wakefulness is available and should be used.
11. Know what a living will is. The two words living will evoked about as much emotion as life insurance did not long ago. But that was before Terri Schiavo captured the country’s attention in 2005. Living wills became a vogue subject, even among people under 40. Yet there’s no one-size-fits-all living will. If things should take a particularly unhappy course and you can’t speak up for yourself, you can tell hospital staffers ahead of time which measures you do or do not want to receive, such as:
• Artificial breathing. No, not via the services of one of the more attractive hospital staff members, we’re afraid. Instead, you’re placed on the machine called a ventilator, which pumps air into your lungs.
• Artificial feeding. If you’re unable to eat, you can be given nutrients through an IV or a tube that’s inserted into your stomach. Some of our more industrious friends have asked if they could have this procedure done just as a matter of convenience, but we tell them to slow down, take a break and eat a real meal.
• Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). You know, the organized theatrics you’ve seen in TV shows and movies, when a hospital team tries to revive you after your heart stops beating or you stop breathing — unless you request a do-not-resuscitate order (DNR). Unlike on television, however, there is not a 99.9% chance that you will be revived successfully and to full consciousness within five seconds by a tanned actor, but we’ll try our best.
Visiting the doctor isn’t generally the most exciting aspect of our daily lives, but it’s an important, even vital part of making sure life, as a whole, is as healthy and rewarding as possible. By following the above steps, you can help ensure that you have all the information and help you need to make the most of every trip to your doctor.