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10 Things You Should Bring to Every Doctor's Appointment

An expert says proper preparation for every office visit is critical to getting the care you deserve

By Leana Wen, M.D. | March 11, 2013
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Dr. Leana S. Wen, M.D., an emergency physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School, is also co-author of the new book When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests (St. Martin's, 2013). Learn more from her blog, The Doctor is Listening.

As an emergency physician, I see patients every day who have forgotten to bring something critical to their appointments. That's understandable when you face an unplanned emergency situation, but not when you've had time to prepare for, say, an annual checkup or a follow-up visit with a specialist.

Whatever the situation, I suggest there are 10 things you should always take with you, even if you don't end up needing them all. Here they are, based on guidance I share in my new book, When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests:

1. Medical History Card Ideally, your doctor will have your complete medical history on file, but this is not always the case, especially if you're seeing a new specialist, an emergency physician or someone covering for your usual doctor. So make sure you always bring along a record of your key information, including medical conditions, dates of past surgeries, current medications, doctors' names and contact information, next of kin and contact information, health insurance and any drug allergies. You can create a card on your computer or visit a website like MedIDs.com, which offers free templates that you can fill in and print out. Once you have a card, laminate it and keep it in your wallet or handbag so you'll have it with you wherever you go.

2. Changes to Your Medical Record If you've received any new test results since your last visit, bring them with you, even if you believe your doctor has already seen a report. Having this information on hand at your appointment ensures that you'll remember to discuss it with your physician. This is particularly important if you are seeing a new doctor or specialist. Current test results will help them get the most complete picture of your health, speed up diagnosis and reduce the need for additional or redundant testing that could carry unnecessary side effects.
 
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3. Your Prescription Drugs Too often, patients tell doctors they don't remember the name or prescribed dosage of their medications. "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 presenting the actual bottles with the labels on them. Before you leave home, gather all your medications and put them in a zip-lock bag. Tell your doctor if you've stopped taking any prescribed drugs or haven't followed dosage instructions. Be honest: If you mislead doctors about prescription compliance, they may assume your medications are not working and prescribe even more!

(MORE: Stop Lying to Your Doctor)
 
4. List of Alternative Therapies Doctors know that a majority of patients today may be employing some type of alternative therapy. It doesn't benefit either one of you to keep it a secret. Many physicians are not expert in alternative medicine, but it's useful for them to know what you're doing, especially if there may be potentially harmful interactions with other medications or treatments. Bring a list of any fish oil supplements, vitamins or herbal remedies you're using (or, preferably, the bottles themselves), as well as a record of visits to any chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists or other practitioners.
 
5. Journal of Your Symptoms If your visit is related to a new concern, you should be keeping a journal that documents your discomfort and how it has affected your daily life in the days or weeks since it began. If your appointment is focused on a chronic condition, your doctor may have asked you to keep track of your response to new at-home treatments; to record objective measures, like your blood sugar; or to note subjective perceptions, like the intensity of a recurring headache. Whatever the information, bringing the journal to your appointment can help your doctor better understand what has been going on.

6. List of Questions You should expect your physicians to be responsive to your concerns, but you need to do your part as well. Always come to an appointment with a list of questions prepared in advance. Brainstorm your questions well before your visit, then jot down a concise list, arranged in order from most to least urgent. And don't leave your doctor's office without asking them.
 
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7. Notebook and Pen This may seem obvious, but it's important to take notes throughout an office visit. If your doctor mentions an unfamiliar term, get him to spell it out. Don't hesitate to push for clarifications. At the end of every visit, request a verbal summary and write it down. Before you leave the exam room, review what you've written about your treatment plan; if there's anything you don't fully understand, ask again.
 
8. Friend or Family Member Having someone with you can provide crucial moral support. But it's also a valuable means of ensuring that your doctor addresses your most important questions. A friend or relative may not be able to sit in during the physical exam, but he or she should be welcome when you and your doctor discuss diagnosis, testing or treatment. That's when a companion can remind you of your primary questions and concerns, act as your advocate if you're not satisfied with the answers and take notes so they can help you follow through on the next necessary steps after an appointment.
 
9. Your Smartphone There is always some downtime during an office visit. Use it to look up more information about what your doctor has told you from trusted resources like the National Institutes of Health's Medline Plus. It's also useful to have your phone on hand if it carries your calendar so you can schedule follow-up visits and screenings. (And, of course, games, emails and websites can distract you from boredom if your wait is particularly long!)
 
(MORE: Could Your Distracted Doctor Harm You?)

10. Snacks Food options at a doctor's office or clinic are typically limited (or nonexistent), and you may end up being there for some time, perhaps missing lunch or dinner. Unless you've been told not to eat because of a scheduled test or screening, be sure to pack a healthy snack so you can maintain your energy and mood.

RELATED VIDEO: "Prescription Overload: Managing Meds" from Twin Cites Public Television