For older adults, preparing for doctor’s appointments is essential

I call January my health month because it is when I schedule my annual doctor appointments, with my primary care physician as well as the specialists I see.

One certainty is that almost all of us will have an annual wellness exam or an appointment to address a specific health concern in the coming year.

No one ever teaches us how to prepare for these appointments, but it is important if you want to get the most out of your visit. Most physicians have limited time to devote to a patient visit, so being prepared and succinct can go a long way to getting your concerns addressed.

The first place I like to start is to have a list of my supplements and medications, with dosage levels, ready to hand to the doctor or nurse.

I once went with a friend to a doctor’s appointment, and she forgot her list. The doctor then read off a list of about 25 medications that were prescribed to her at some point in her history asking her if she was still taking each one. It was a crazy experience, but of course he really wanted to know what she was currently taking before he prescribed anything else.

I also list new vaccinations I received in the past year. Because I turned 65 this past year, I was eligible for pneumonia and the new shingles vaccines, both of which I received. It is good for my doctor to know.

Next, I prepare a list of the medical situations I experienced over the past year. I do not belong to a health system with a central database that all primary care and specialist physicians can access, like they have at Kaiser, so it is really upon me to note these to my physicians. For example, I might include on that list that I had some extensive allergy testing, fell and broke a bone, or had a major flare up of an autoimmune disease requiring hospitalization.

I also like to let my doctors know if there is a new diagnosis in my family history, for example, if a close relative was newly diagnosed with cancer or dementia. That is important to know because it may affect my own health risk in the future.

Once all that is ready, I begin to think about what I want to communicate to the doctor – symptoms I have been experiencing such as unsteadiness, memory concerns or sleep issues. I jot them down with any other details that might be important like the frequency or severity of my symptoms.

While it may not always be possible, the older we get, it is good practice to bring another person (spouse, friend or relative) with us to our appointments. Four ears are better than two, as often at appointments a lot of information is conveyed and sometimes it is tough for us to absorb it all. If you are unable to bring a friend, the next best thing is to take notes. Have paper and pen ready so that you can capture the key information your physician is providing.

If you cannot bring a loved one with you, but you want them to be able to speak with your physician about your condition, be sure to ask the physician’s front office for a HIPAA authorization form, also known as a HIPAA release form. It is a document that patients sign for their health provider so that they may disclose your protected health information to the person you designate.

During my appointment time, I try to ask good questions. For example, are there different treatment options for my condition, or what outcome can I expect from the course of treatment you are suggesting or is there anything I can do on my own to improve my condition. The last question I always ask is, what questions have I not asked that I should have?

If you have an Advance Directive and have not shared it with your physician, I highly recommend letting the front desk know you would like to do this when you book your appointment. This way the office may schedule a bit more time for that discussion. Your physician can bill for this conversation, so do not feel bad about taking up their time. It is a very important topic to discuss.

Taking an active role when talking to your physicians is one of the best ways to ensure you and your doctors are on the same page, and that your concerns are being addressed.

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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