As health issues get more complicated, doctor’s visits can take up a significant part of your day—whether you’re managing your own medical care or supporting your loved one. Travel time, waiting room delays, follow-up lab tests and X-rays, not to mention the actual time spent in the exam room waiting for and, finally, meeting with your physician, can add up quickly. Before you know it, half a day is gone.
All the more reason to be sure you get the most out of your appointment. No sense spending all that time unless you leave with a clear understanding of your or your loved one’s medical diagnosis, recommended treatments, side effects and risk factors.
As medicine becomes ever more specialized and treatments become more sophisticated, a visit to the doctor can also seem overwhelming, just because of the sheer volume of information you need to understand and the details you need to track. For an aging loved one, it’s critical for someone to be present who can accurately convey relevant health details to the doctor as well as follow through on the doctor’s recommendations.
Here are a few tips for making the most of doctor’s visits, drawn from “Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People,” by the National Institute on Aging (June 2014):
1) Choose a doctor you can talk to.
This may seem obvious, but there is nothing worse than relying on a physician who is either unwilling to take the time you need to discuss issues thoroughly or unable to convey information in a way that you and your loved on can understand. If your loved one is intimidated by her physician, no one benefits. An honest, trusting relationship with a doctor who is a good communicator is an essential starting point. Older adults who grew up in an era when the doctor was the all-knowing authority and the patient was in a childlike role of simply receiving information may need help from you to advocate on their behalf in the doctor-patient relationship.
2) Share any symptoms.
Aches and pains, lumps and bumps, fever, trouble sleeping, unexpected weight loss or gain are all important information for your doctor. Your loved one may complain to you in private but be reluctant to report these to his physician. Keep track of the details and share the information during the appointment. This is not “tattling” or being disrespectful of an aging parent—it’s necessary for the physician to know what’s really going on, in order to make an accurate diagnosis.
3) Bring a current list of all medications.
This is especially important if your loved one is seeing a variety of specialists. Most health care groups now keep electronic records that are shared among practitioners, but if specialists are located in different care settings, each will have separate records. It falls on the patient to report medications and allergies. Your loved one’s primary care physician as well as specialists need an accurate list of medications, which should be reviewed periodically to ensure no problematic interactions between prescriptions.
4) Ask questions.
It’s not only okay to ask for clarification about anything you or your loved one doesn’t understand—it’s key to staying healthy. Be sure that you know about risks and side-effects of any new medications, diagnostic tests, surgery and other treatments. Clarify timing of any medication and how it should be administered (with or without food, upon waking or before bed). Ask about outcomes and alternatives, so that you can evaluate whether a treatment is really worth pursuing. Discuss personal values and practical circumstances, such as what your loved one’s health insurance covers, whether a procedure will require home assistance for recuperation, or whether a particular side effect will interfere with an activity that’s important to you or your loved one. Be an informed medical consumer.
5) Take notes.
No matter how good your memory, it always helps to bring a written list of questions to the appointment and to take notes during your conversation. The more complex you or your loved one’s medical condition, the more essential this practice. Dedicate a notebook to medical visits as a ready reference
6) Designate a health care proxy.
If your loved one becomes incapacitated and unable to communicate her wishes in case of a medical emergency, she needs to designate a health care proxy to make decisions on her behalf. The best time to do this is before a crisis, when your loved one is mentally capable and able to sign the health care proxy, which is a legal document. It’s essential that your loved one discusses his or her preferences with the named agent as part of this process. Honoring Choices Massachusetts provides helpful guidance for how to have that conversation.
For more information about how to talk to your doctor, visit the National Institute on Aging.
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care™ manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.
For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.
Image Credit: Kurhan