The Doctor Is Listening

How patients can advocate for better care

10 Things Not to Forget When You Next See Your Doctor

Make sure to bring these ten key items whenever you go to see your doctor.

Has this ever happened to you? You are at an appointment with your doctor. She asks you for something, say, the dosage of your cholesterol medication or the results of your recent blood draw you had. You think to yourself, shoot, if only I brought that with me!

As an emergency physician, I see patients every day who forgot to bring something critical to their doctor's appointment. Sometimes, there may be emergency situations that you can't plan for. Thankfully, most of the time, you do have a heads-up for going to the doctor. Maybe it's an annual check-up, or a scheduled appointment, or even an urgent care drop-in because of a bad sore throat. There are some things you should always bring with you. Keep this checklist accessible, and aim to take the following 10 items with you:

#1. A medical card. It would be ideal for every doctor to have a full list of your medical history, but our country is not even close to having a nationally accessible medical record system. Especially if you are seeing a coverage doctor or visiting the ER, he or she may not have your medical record. To make sure your doctor has your medical information available, carry a card with you. You can find many cards that are easily downloadable on the Internet. Key information listed on the card include: your medical problems, past surgeries, doctors' names, next of kin, health insurance, and medication allergies. Carry this in your wallet wherever you go; this makes sure that your doctor will always have your most critical medical history.

#2. Changes to your medical record. If you have had recent test results since you last saw your doctor, bring these with you. Even if you think your doctor should have these results already, bringing them will make sure that they are discussed during the visit. This is particularly important if you are going to see a new doctor or specialist; having results handy will give them the most complete picture, speed up your diagnosis, and also reduce the need for further testing that can potentially bring additional, unnecessary side effects.

#3. Your medications. Very often, patients go to see their doctor and say that they can't remember what medications they are taking. "I think I stopped taking the pink, tiny pill, but I'm still taking the white one and the blue one," is not as helpful as seeing the actual bottles with the labels on them. Take all your medications, put them in a bag, and bring them with you. Tell your doctor if you've stopped taking any of your medications, and be honest if you haven't been taking them as much as you were supposed to. Otherwise, your doctor may assume they're not working, and prescribe you even more!

#4. A list of alternative therapies. Doctors know that the majority of our patients use some type of alternative therapy. It is important for your doctor to know about all the different treatments you are using. Most doctors are not experts in alternative medicines, but it's useful for them to know what's your taking in case there are some interactions with your other medications or treatments. Keep a list of fish oil, vitamins, and supplements that you're using, and a record of visits to chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, or other practitioners.

#5. A journal of your symptoms. If you have a chronic condition, or if you have a new symptom you're concerned about, you should be keeping a journal that documents your symptoms and how they are throughout the days and weeks. Your doctor may also ask you to keep track of your response to treatments you're doing at home. Sometimes, there are objective measures that you need to write down, such as your blood sugar. Sometimes they are purely subjective, for example, your headache intensity. Bringing the journal with you to your appointment can help your doctor better understand what's going on and how your symptoms affect your daily life.

#6. A list of your questions. You should always come prepared with a list of questions to ask your doctor. Brainstorm the list well before your appointment, and have a concise list of questions, starting with the most urgent that you must get answered. Don't leave your doctor's office without asking them.

#7. A notebook and pen. This may seem obvious, but your doctor may not always have writing equipment readily accessible, and it's important to have a notebook and pen to take notes. Write down things that don't make sense, and ask for clarification. If there are words mentioned that you've never heard of, ask your doctor to spell them. At the end of the visit, ask for a verbal summary. Make sure you write down and understand your plan.

#8. A family member or a friend. Having someone with you will give you support and company during the appointment. As importantly, they can help remind you of your questions and concerns. This is another measure to help ensure your doctor answers all the questions that you have.

#9. A smartphone. Everyone seems to have some kind of smartphone device: an iPhone, a Blackberry, an iPad. There will be downtime when you're waiting. Use this time to look up what your doctor has told you. The smartphone also keeps you busy if your wait is particularly long!

#10. Some snacks. Often, there are limited food options at the doctor's office or hospital, and you may be waiting for some time. Unless you're told not to eat, or have a complaint that you're not sure how it will go, having something on hand can help make you feel better.

I hope this list is useful for you as you prepare for your next doctor's visit. My new book, When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, contains more tips and advice on how to advocate for better care. I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Leana Wen, M.D., is an emergency physician and fellow at Harvard Medical School.

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