Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

Frustrated with your doctor? Five tips to get the most out of medical appointments and keep your sanity

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: communication, stress

Have you ever left a doctor's appointment feeling totally defeated, frustrated, or even in tears? Dealing with the healthcare bureaucracy can be one of the single biggest sources of frustration for people with an ongoing health condition.

You probably know what it’s like to interact with healthcare systems as a patient. But have you ever considered what is like to work in that system?

Today I’m going to give you a peek into your doctor’s world and give you five strategies for preserving your sanity and dignity when interacting with your doctors.

Do you wish your doctors understood you better? Relationships are a two-way street. Let's take a few minutes to consider your doctor's perspective. Then I'll cover five steps you can take to help yourself approach your medical appointments in a way that minimizes your stress and maximizes your chances of having a positive outcome.

A peek into your doctor's typical day

I’d never really considered my doctor’s perspective until I began working in primary care settings. In my first week I requested to “shadow” each of our doctors, looking for a chance to connect with my new colleagues. What I really got was a trial-by-fire education into their challenging schedules. 

What's It Like From The Doctor's Point of View?

I met the first doc I was shadowing at 7:50am. She opened up her schedule for the day, and every single appointment slot was full. Adding it up, I counted 32 people in 8 hours. “Wow!” I commented, “Is that a lot?” Her reply? “No, that’s normal. Just wait,” she said, “We will get a few more who will get squeezed in.” At 7:55am, she took a last sip of her coffee and looked at me. “Ready?” 

By 8:45am, my head was spinning and I was exhausted. In less than an hour we'd seen an older man complaining of stomach pains, a young pregnant woman recently rescued from sex traffickers, a distraught middle aged man with “headaches” listed on the reason for visit but he declared the real reason was that he was ready to admit to a drinking problem and needed help, and an older woman with chronic leg pain. That’s roughly 7 minutes in each room. Each of those people came with stories, backgrounds, and problems that deserved far more than 7 minutes of time. 

That intensely demanding schedule for medical providers is the standard in every medical office, including specialist offices. Unless you’re actually in surgery or having a procedure, the average time you’ll get to spend with a medical professional is about 8-16 minutes.

As of 2012, 35% of primary care physicians in both the US and the UK were seeing on average 21-40 people per day.

-Annals of Family Medicine, 2012

Imagine! You are responsible for making a connection, building trust, evaluating all medical possibilities, interpreting test results, documenting everything in the medical chart, and all the other duties of being a doctor. For 30-40 people a day. Have you ever talked intimately with four people each hour for eight hours in a row? It's hard. It's really hard.

Five Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity When Dealing with Doctors

This system is no doubt flawed but until it’s fixed, here are five solid steps you can take to keep your sanity while interacting with the healthcare system. Building a good relationship with your healthcare providers can go a very long way toward keeping stress down.   

Strategy 1 Determine what you need out of your appointment.

Before your appointment, decide what you need from that appointment. Ask yourself what you’re hoping the outcome of this appointment will be. Do you need advice? Do you need reassurance about a symptom? Are you hoping for a specific test? A specific plan of action?

Doctors can be immersed in their own day. Sometimes a doctor will come in with a set of assumptions about what you're expecting from them. They may think oh, she wants medication. Oh, he wants more tests.

Take the time to clarify what you really want from each visit. Do you need more infomation? Do you need to talk about your treatment plan? Do you want to discuss a change in medication?

Strategy 2 Write down your expectations and questions.

You don't have a ton of time with your doctor. Oftentimes the doctor can whip in like a whirlwind and then before you're know it you're feeling rushed out the door with a referral or a prescription you don't understand.

Minimize the chance of this happening by writing down your main priorities on a notecard. Write your top three questions or concerns down on something you can hold in your hand easily during the visit.

When the doctor comes in and sees you holding a notecard or single sheet of paper, it's going to be a visual cue. You're letting them know you're organized and have some clear issues for them to address.

Strategy 3 State your deepest concerns at the beginning of the visit.

I know, you're probably already nervous and not feeling your best. It can be really hard to put your deepest fears or concerns out there. But it's going to be worth it. If you wait until the doctor's hand is on the handle to the door on his way out, your concerns aren't going to get the attention they deserve.

You can offset the chance of this happening by introducing your questions right at the beginning. It can be hard to state your concerns up front, but it's worth it. Unless you correct those (often wrong) assumptions, your visit is going to go sideways and you're going to leave frustrated and upset.

Start with something like, "Hi Dr. S, so glad to see you today. I would like to talk about [X] during this visit. I wrote down three questions I am hoping to talk to you about today. I am hoping for [what you're hoping for]. I specifically would like to avoid [anything you don't want]."

Strategy 4 Be succinct.

One way to make your doctor feel overwhelmed is to hand her a huge pile of papers and a long list of vague questions. An overwhelmed doctor isn't going to be able to put his best foot forward easily.

They might love you, but they don’t have a ton of time for stories and idle chitchat. You have a limited time with your doctor so make the best use of it. You can use your notes to help guide you, but do not hand a big piles of papers to your doctor unless she asks for it.

Most clinics require anything the patient hands to the doctor to be scanned and included in the medical chart. Handing them papers adds significantly to their workload. You can bring in copies and offer, but do not be offended if your doc doesn’t take it with him.

You might have a lot of questions, but narrow it down to the two or three most important or urgent topics for one visit. Help your doctor by communicating a short list of priorities.

Strategy 5 Make friends with your healthcare team.

This includes the front desk staff, the people answering the phones, and especially the nurse who takes you back to the room. Smile. Say hello. Learn their names and introduce yourself.

When anyone on the team sees your name, you want their reaction to be a smile or a frown of genuine concern. These are the gatekeepers, the people who can help you figure out your health insurance, who can help track down results, and who can squeeze you in to the doctor’s schedule.

In my experience these people are going to do their damnedest to do a good job, regardless of how nice you are. But if you are kind and considerate and friendly, you will stand out and they will bend over backwards to try to help you when you need it.