Hester Hill Schnipper Photo courtesy of Beth Israel D​eaconess Medica​l Center​​

WE ARE ALL AWARE of the increasing pressures on our health care system, including staffing shortages brought on by the pandemic. Fewer people are available to fill necessary health care roles, and the isolation of the pandemic has meant that many people have stayed away from medical centers, resulting in delayed diagnoses and treatments.

These variables, taken together, can undermine patients’ and physicians’ best efforts to become partners in care. While many of these challenges remain outside of patients’ control, thoughtful preparation before an appointment can help to maximize time with health care providers.

Here are some suggestions for making the most of your next appointment:

1) Arrive early and expect to wait. While we’d all love to see greater efficiency in health care, the system is imperfect. Take a book or a tablet to occupy yourself in case you have to wait to be seen.

2) Accept anxiety. It is normal to be anxious at some medical appointments, especially if you have new health issues or are waiting for scan results. Your health care team is accustomed to patients’ blood pressure being a little elevated, particularly at the beginning of the visit. If this a concern, ask to have your blood pressure taken again later in the appointment, when it will likely be lower.

3) Decide what you’d most like to learn from the appointment. Are there specific worries you want to discuss? Are you having side effects from your treatment? Do you have general health issues that you worry about?

4) Write down a list of your concerns and prioritize five questions to ask so you can focus on the most pressing issues.

5) Avoid the tendency to ask a doorknob question, the term used to describe an important or complex question a patient asks as the appointment appears to be wrapping up.

6) Bring a notebook or paper to jot down information, keeping in mind that studies suggest patients typically remember less than half of what doctors say during medical appointments. It is tough to concentrate and think clearly, particularly when we are stressed and worried about a life-threatening diagnosis.

7) Reframe any information your doctor is telling you to ensure you understand what is being said. For example, after listening to your doctor, you could repeat information and say, “You are suggesting that we try this new medication for three months and then evaluate the situation. Is that right?”

8) Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something.

9) Bring someone with you to take notes. Two sets of ears are always better than one. If you need to come to the appointment alone because of COVID-19 restrictions or other reasons, ask if the person who can’t come to the appointment can call in instead.

10) Review your medical records prior to and after the appointment. The 21st Century Cures Act requires doctors and hospitals to give patients full access to their medical records, including notes from the appointment. Reading over this information can help you learn more about your diagnosis and treatment at a pace that’s comfortable to you.

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor who served as the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.