How to prepare for successful doctor visits with the person you are caring for

By Wendy Johnstone
February 19, 2015

When my mother had stomach cancer, I flew back to Toronto to give my siblings a reprieve and support my mom post-surgery.

The procedure to remove her tumour was long and very painful. Post-discharge, my mom experienced severe stomach pains, difficulty sleeping and digestive problems.  Heavily medicated (not me, her!) to reduce the pain, I drove her to a follow-up appointment with her physician. My mom thought it was a good idea to have me sit in on the appointment with her.

Pen and paper in hand, I was ready to be my mom’s advocate! I nearly fell off the chair when my mom smiled and told her doctor that she wasn’t having any problems, pain or side effects.

When I opened my mouth to say something, my mom turned and glared at me, giving ‘the look,’ which quickly reminded me of my position within the Johnstone hierarchical system.

We were in and out in five minutes. My pen never saw the paper.

Not the finest example of medical advocacy and yet, not an uncommon story.

In today’s world we are faced with a health care system described as consumer-centred with an average of 15 minutes per visit with a family physician. Physicians see a lot of patients in a day. They can usually address only one concern per visit.

Many have expressed they don’t always have enough time to meet their patients’ needs. Patients are encouraged to come to their visit prepared, to get the most from their physician’s expertise and diagnostic skills.

Purpose for the visit

We make an appointment for a reason. The key is to write down that reason on a piece of paper with the date and time of the appointment and with whom (if with a specialist). Below the reason, jot down all the symptoms being experienced, how long they’ve been present, what aggravates the symptoms, what relieves them and the severity of the symptoms.

Murphy’s Law states that by the time we walk into the clinic, quite a few or all of the symptoms have magically disappeared!

Have your questions at the ready

Below the symptoms, write down a list of questions for the appointment. Some examples are

• How are symptoms caused, how long will they last and will they go away?
• What is the diagnosis and what are options for treatment?
• What medications and/or over the counter medications are helpful?
• What are the side effects?
• Will current medications interfere with any new medications?
• What other lifestyle changes are needed?

List your medications

Bring a current list of all medications being taken. Include all vitamins, natural remedies and over-the-counter prescriptions. If you don’t have a list, bring a bag with all the above with you.

Offer accompaniment

If the person you are caring for is comfortable, ask that you be their extra set of ears and eyes. It’s difficult for anyone to catch everything the doctor recommends or to think of all the questions. Offer to take notes so you and your parents can review them at home. If you feel your aging loved one needs more time to deal with a medical issue, ask for an extra long appointment when booking the visit.

Follow-up is key

If tests were done, a referral made or your loved one needs a follow-up appointment, take the lead. Ask your health-care provider when you can expect to hear back. If you don’t hear back from the clinic or your physician within the timeframe, a friendly inquiry doesn’t hurt. Don’t forget to ask for a copy of any test results.

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC

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