Merck Manual

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Making the Most of a Health Care Visit


Michael R. Wasserman

, MD, California Association of Long Term Care Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023

First visit

The first time people visit their primary care doctor, they should ask any of the questions that are relevant to choosing a doctor and that they have not asked (see ). The following questions may be especially helpful:

If people already have an advance directive, they should bring a copy or the original to be copied for the doctor’s records. They should also collect all medications and supplements they are currently taking, including over-the-counter medications, medicinal herbs, and vitamins, and bring them to the doctor’s office.

At the first visit, the doctor asks about topics such as past and present health, the health of close relatives (family health history), treatments, tests, and lifestyle. Even if the doctor does not ask, people should make sure the doctor has certain information about them such as

  • Information about past hospitalizations, use of home health services, or care received from any specialists or other health care practitioners (including alternative medicine practitioners), with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of these sources of health care

  • Information about any diagnostic tests and treatments already planned

  • Exercise habits, sleep habits and quality of sleep, diet (including consumption of caffeine), sexual practices, and use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and medications and supplements not prescribed by a health care practitioner (including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and medicinal herbs)

  • Previous documented or suspected medication allergies or intolerances

  • Any personal, spiritual, or cultural considerations that might affect health care decisions

  • The pharmacy they use (so prescriptions may be called in or sent electronically)

Providing this information helps improve the quality of care and ensure that any change in practitioners is smooth. For example, people should give their primary care doctor contact information for other health care practitioners and facilities they have visited and provide written consent for release of information. Then, the involved practitioners can communicate with each other more easily. Contact information also helps the primary care doctor obtain copies of pertinent information for the medical record.

Subsequent visits

Each time people see their doctor, they should prepare a list to make sure the doctor knows everything relevant to their health care. The list should include the following:

  • Any health-related questions

  • Any symptoms or medical problems, including mental health problems

  • Any recent side effects experienced while taking medications

  • Any diagnostic testing or new treatments recommended by another health care practitioner

  • Any time they are not taking medications as prescribed and the reason for it (for example, “I seem to get stomach cramps from the medication” or “I cannot afford the medication”)

  • Any changes in personal information, including major life events (such as retirement, change in marital status, a death in the family, or a move to a different home)

Lists should be written down in advance. During a busy office visit, people can easily forget or become distracted from what they planned to say. The list should also be prioritized, with the most important items listed first. Symptoms should be described as accurately and precisely as possible, being careful not to minimize or exaggerate them, including their frequency, duration, and what makes them worse or better. Reading about or talking with someone who has had a disorder or a recommended diagnostic test or treatment before a visit may enable people to ask more specific, useful questions.

Any forms (such as insurance, school, or preemployment forms) that need to be completed by the doctor or office staff should be brought. People should also bring current insurance cards, any required referrals, and a means of payment for any required fees.

Arriving at the doctor’s office 10 to 15 minutes before the scheduled appointment (particularly for the first visit) gives the office staff time to make sure that insurance information is current and that any required forms are completed. Some offices have patients complete online or in-person health updates prior to or at the time of each visit. These updates can provide useful road maps for issues to be discussed at the visit.

During the visit, listening carefully to the doctor and responding as honestly and completely as possible, even about sensitive issues (such as bladder control or sexual practices), is essential. If a treatment or an invasive diagnostic test is being considered, people should ask about the following:

  • How effective is the treatment or how accurate is the diagnostic test?

  • How will the test results change treatment?

  • What are the possible side effects of the tests or treatment?

  • What other choices are available?

  • What are the specific goals for the treatment?

  • How will the response to treatment be followed or monitored?

  • Any other questions they have about the treatment or test

People should request an explanation of anything that is not understood and ask for an online link to patient education or a handout on the subject if available. Asking the doctor to write out instructions and reading them back to the doctor at the end of the visit help make sure the instructions are understood. Reading them back gives the doctor the opportunity to correct any miscommunication. Taking notes during a visit may also help. For people who cannot use written materials or who have problems with vision, speech, or hearing, other approaches may be needed to keep track of the information. For example, the instructions may be recorded in an audio file, or a family member or friend may agree to read written instructions when needed. When people go to the pharmacy for medications, they can use the same approaches.

Before leaving, people should check their list of questions and symptoms and talk to the doctor about anything that was not covered. If many questions remain, the doctor may have to schedule another appointment or write a referral to another health care practitioner, such as a nurse, pharmacist, or dietitian, for further information and education.

After the visit, any recommended follow-up appointments should be scheduled. Any prescriptions should be filled, and any written materials provided by the doctor or pharmacist should be read, including a printed summary of the office visit.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Cafcit, NoDoz, Stay Awake, Vivarin
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