Whether you seem to spend more time at a doctor’s office than your own home or you only make the routine visits, chances are that at one point or another, you have left a doctor’s appointment feeling totally frustrated, disappointed, or just confused. Rising health costs and the complex web of insurance coverage are only the initial barriers when dealing with a medical issue and the journey towards recovery. As somebody who has faced chronic health issues over the past several years, I have visited hundreds of doctors, undergone dozens of treatments, and paid thousands of dollars to the healthcare system – only to be in almost the same place as I started four years ago. While speaking with friends, I too often hear the same story as I have so often shared myself: why do these appointments feel like a waste of time, energy, and money?
Regardless of all other factors, it’s likely that you will inevitably face a frustrating or disappointing outcome with a doctor in the future. However, over the past several years, I have learned a few things to give myself the best chance of getting the most out of my appointments. To prevent me from totally giving up, I regularly take the time to research, prepare for, and follow up on my appointments in the hope of having fewer negative experiences. I’m hopeful that sharing the below tips will help in eliminating some of the surprises and bumps that too often arise on the road to wellness.
Do Your Research
One of the most important things you must do when seeking a doctor or treatment is research. A crucial aspect of finding the correct doctor, practice, or treatment center is understanding your financial responsibility for the appointment and having a complete comprehension of your insurance coverage, if you have it. It seems as though there are so many loopholes in insurances and I’m always surprised at how difficult it can be to receive the benefits I’m expecting. I am regularly logged into my health insurance’s website and mobile app, both of which have decent explanations of my benefits and plan details and serve as a great place to start when trying to understand my coverage. Some basics to consider with your health insurance are your deductible, your network vs. out-of-network benefits, your out-of-pocket maximum, and your primary care/preventative vs. specialist plan details. Some health insurance plans have standard copay amounts for in-network appointments, while others use a co-insurance method after meeting a deductible. There are endless other unique aspects to each insurance plan, so you can never be too safe in researching and confirming your specific plan. If seeking a specialist, find out if a referral is necessary; if looking for a therapist or psychiatrist, check your mental health coverages; if you need bloodwork or a procedure done, confirm that you are going to an in-network facility.
I often times find the list of doctors and treatment centers on the insurance website to be outdated or incomplete, so it’s a good idea to search for an in-network doctor through other websites, such as Zocdoc, and to confirm insurance eligibility with the doctor’s office directly. If you’re ever unsure of your potential financial responsibility, call the insurance company to ask, making a note of the representative’s name, the date of the call and a quick summary of the conversation (just in case you receive a surprise bill later). It has often amazed me how many different answers I can receive from my insurance company when asking the same question, so I would advise to never be too cautious in attempting to understand your coverage plan.
Another obvious area of research when making an appointment is to read or ask for reviews of the doctor or practice. There are typically several websites for doctor reviews that are easily accessible with a Google search of the doctor or practice name. It’s worth asking your friends, family, and other already-trusted doctors for referrals as well. If you are someone who requires a little extra sweetness in bedside manner, look for positive reviews about the doctor’s demeanor and approachability. If you are looking for efficiency, keep an eye out for comments on the wait time and the front desk staff. If reading a doctor’s biography or practice summary, check to see if the doctor has any sub-specialties or unique approaches to his or her practice, such as alternative medicine or particular symptomology specialties. For example, some orthopedists may specialize in only shoulder injuries and refer patients to other doctors for different injuries or concerns. Confirming sub-specialties such as this can often save you from attending a fruitless appointment.
A final point to consider when selecting a doctor is knowing the office location, as well as the doctor’s days and hours of operation. Selecting a doctor convenient in location to your home or work is key in ensuring that you stick to your appointments and make it to your appointments on time. Even if you aren’t expecting to receive long-term care from a particular doctor, it’s likely that at least a follow-up will be necessary, so it’s important to consider the feasibility of returning to that location. Equally as important as location is the schedule of the doctor or practice. If you know that daytime appointments are impossible to make because of work, look for doctors that have early morning, evening, or even weekend hours. If it’s difficult to slip out of work in the middle of the day for an initial appointment, chances are that it may become impossible to maintain an ongoing schedule with that doctor. Leading up to your appointment, confirm the office location (including cross streets and floor number), the best way to get to that location, and if the doctor is running on time or extremely behind schedule. Doctors often have strict cancellation and lateness policies, so saving yourself from pleading with the front desk while attempting to locate the office or while on a delayed subway will relieve some stress. If it’s stressful to run out of your office to make an appointment, confirming that you won’t waste forty minutes in the waiting room before the doctor is ready will certainly save you some frustration (take it from me).
I’ve found that there is a direct correlation between my preparedness for an appointment and my satisfaction with that appointment. Dedicating the time, energy, and money required to see a doctor usually implies there is a question or concern, so keep your goal in mind and give yourself the best chance of achieving it by making the most of your time. If applicable, compile your previous bloodwork, lab, and/or image results, and keep a list of current and previous medications or treatments. Be prepared to answer questions about your allergies, intolerances, and family medical history. It’s likely that the doctor’s office will have unique patient forms that you must complete from scratch, so I keep a small notebook (which could also be a note on your phone) with my family’s history of cancer and a list of my most recent doctor appointments. If the patient forms do not require it, have your preferred pharmacy name, address, and phone number handy. If it’s needed, having the pharmacy information ahead of time will save you from awkwardly searching for it on your phone with a weak WiFi signal in front of the doctor.
Depending on your health concern, it may be wise to create a journal noting your sleep, eating, activity levels, and symptoms in the week or two leading up to the appointment. This may help the doctor (and even yourself) pinpoint if there are patterns or triggers to your symptoms, and it may save yourself an extra appointment if the doctor requests it after the first appointment. Specifics will depend on which issues you’re experiencing, but a good place to start is making a note of your wake and sleep times, food and water intake, physical activity, medications and supplements, and how you’re feeling throughout the day. I’ve kept dozens of logs like these for my own sake while dealing with digestive, menstrual, sleep, and migraine issues. Although the diaries sometimes may not seem to directly answer any questions, this information will also be helpful to the doctor, and I still find logs from several months ago useful for reference.
Equally as important as your records and symptom journal is a list of questions and concerns that you should prepare ahead of time as well. Too many times I’ve become overwhelmed, confused, or sidetracked throughout an appointment and have forgotten to ask the question I had made the appointment for in the first place. Some doctors can talk a lot, while others seem to be in and out of the examination room quicker than a genie, so it’s important to have a list of questions to refer to quickly and to ensure that you have them answered. Because I have such a complex medical history, I’ll usually prepare a short note that I keep on me with a few bullet points that seem most relevant for that particular appointment. Regardless of your situation, there are usually basic questions you will want to ask, such as medication side effects, alternative options for treatment plans, and when you can expect to receive results if bloodwork or imaging was prescribed. If a doctor suggests a particular treatment or procedure, ask if it is covered by insurance and confirm that the treatment center, lab, or hospital referred by the doctor is in fact in-network. Sometimes doctors have reasons to refer their patients to one lab or hospital over others, and will do so without checking for insurance coverage. I’ve received huge bills in the past after unknowingly agreeing to an out-of-network center recommended by my doctor, only to find out there were several in-network centers nearby. I would always prefer to ask too many questions and confirm my coverage too many times rather than surprisingly receive an enormous medical bill in the mail.
Towards the end of your appointment, be sure that you are clear of next steps, and if you have to make any follow-up appointments. If you had any testing done, ask when you should expect to hear results, and be sure to follow up with the doctor’s office if you do not hear back by that date. If you were prescribed medication, make sure you understand the instructions and don’t have any remaining questions about its side effects. Ask if the practice has an online portal, and if the doctor prefers to communicate through the portal or via phone or email, in case you do have any questions or concerns following the appointment. If the practice does have an online portal, the doctor may post your visit summary for you to view. If you have an ongoing issue or will be seeing other doctors in the future, it may be helpful to save the visit summary for your future appointments. Whether you pay for the appointment at the office or later receive a bill in the mail, make a note of the amount paid and the payment date for your own records, and in case there’s a question with your insurance company down the road.
Finally, if you were lucky enough to find a good and caring doctor, do your friends and family a favor by referring that doctor, or write a positive online review if that’s your cup of tea. Reading reviews and hearing feedback via word-of-mouth are often times the most trusted criteria used when selecting a doctor, so it’s valuable information to share with others.
After reading this, you may think I have a vendetta against doctors, or I’m trying to paint the entire health system as evil, both of which are entirely untrue. I have, however, left appointments feeling hopeless, frustrated, or just unsure if any progress was made or anything new was learned. If you have a chronic condition or specific concern, you may have experienced the crushing disappointment after placing so much hope in a particular doctor or appointment, only to leave with no answers, or to feel rushed and ignored. Although I’ve sat through numerous of these wasteful appointments, I’ve also met some amazingly caring doctors who have taken the time to sincerely help me. The time that doctors have is extremely valuable, as is your own, so the hope is to maximize the time you have together and to receive the care that you deserve. Doctors see several patients a day, both before and after our own appointments, so it’s our responsibility to contribute to the success of that appointment as well.
Our health system is huge, insurance is complicated, and policies are constantly changing, all while personal wellness is becoming increasingly prioritized in our society. Especially if your health concerns are making you nervous or anxious, it’s important to be organized and prepared in order to navigate through your health journey with a clear mind. I think it’s safe to say there are better ways to spend a day than dressing down into a paper gown or getting blood drawn. While these things may never change, we can better prepare ourselves in order to feel less frustration along the way.