Dr. Tully and Dr. Levine, two primary care doctors, shared nine ways to get the most out of your yearly checkup. They stressed how important it is to visit your doctor at least once a year. If you can't remember the last time you went for a checkup, then you're probably overdue for one. Here is what they say to do prior to and during your appointment to make it worth your while.
1. Make sure to actually schedule and attend your appointment each year.
Primary care is supposed to be the foundation of the health care system but it turns out that more people are only visiting the doctor if they have an issue. Amber Tully, M.D. refers to this situation as reactive medicine. Patients seem to be seeking care for medical issues only when they become too painful or serious to disregard.
“There’s still a critical role for preventive medicine,” said Tully. “The crux of that is the annual physical exam, in which you can discuss illness, but almost more importantly, wellness: ways to keep yourself healthy and free of illness down the road.” I know you may not think you have time for a doctors appointment, especially when you're feeling healthy and well, however it is the perfect opportunity to be proactive with your health.
2. Prepare for your appointment by jotting down all of the details about your medical history that you are aware of.
“Your primary care doctor should be your gatekeeper for understanding everything going on and piecing it together—someone who knows the whole story of you,” said Shanna Levine, M.D., a PCP and clinical instructor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Because many people can't easily recall specific details about their medical history, Tully recommends that you bring documents to your appointment such as shot records, lab results, details about emergency room visits, and results from specialists.
“A lot of patients just don’t know the answers to even the simplest questions like, ‘When was your last tetanus shot?’, or, ‘When was your last mammogram?’” Dr. Tully said. “Not having that kind of information really prevents the doctors from making good decisions.” You may need to dig through the good ole filing cabinet or contact your previous doctors to gather all your medical history files. Don't forget to also mention the medical history of your family members. This can be extremely important as so many health issues have genetic components. Dr. Tully says to mention certain conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, alcoholism, any cancers, or chronic illnesses, especially if your family members have an early onset form of a disease.
3. Notify your doctor of all the medications, drugs, or supplements that you take.
The easiest way to do this is to start a list of all of the prescription drugs that you're taking. Make sure to include both the name and dosage. Dr. Tully said not to forget birth control or any over-the-counter medications that you use. She said that people often overlook medications like the Benadryl that you may take occasionally when you can't sleep.
Also, write down any supplements that you're taking. Even though it may say natural or herbal, it still has the potential to interact with other medications and cause them to be less effective. Dr. Levine said that you have to be careful when it comes to taking supplements because they could cause side effects you're not aware of. According to the National Institutes of Health, taking too much of vitamin A could cause headaches and taking too much iron could cause nausea. If they go unchecked, both could lead to liver damage. Let your doctor know all the medications and supplements that are part of your routine so that they can be approved.
4. Don't be afraid to speak up about what you want from the visit at the beginning.
You don't get too much time with the doctor during a yearly checkup. If you have concerns about something, make sure to mention it at the beginning of the appointment. Prior to your appointment, think about what you want from your appointment and make sure to share that with the doctor.
“If fatigue is an issue, if you’re trying to lose weight, if you want to cut your risk of heart attacks—make that a point in the beginning of the visit instead of saying ‘Oh, by the way,’ at the end,” Dr. Levine said. “It can get written off until the next visit.” She suggests saying to your doctor something like, “I’m here for my annual, but I’d really like to know more about XYZ.”
5. Tell your primary care practitioner any issues that you think you may need to see a specialist for.
Your primary care practitioner may be able to treat you instead. By bringing up these issues to your doctor, you may be able to save a lot of time and money. “A lot of your bread and butter problems that don’t have too much complexity can easily be treated by a primary care practitioner,” said Dr. Levine. “Specialists really come in … when the problem becomes too complex or advanced for our scope of care.”
For example, Dr. Levine said that you could make the most of your annual checkup by also getting routine gynecological care from your primary care practitioner. Your general doctor can test for sexually transmitted infection and prescribe non-surgical birth control options. You could also ask your primary care practitioner to inspect an abnormal mole that you noticed. “Your primary care doctor could maybe evaluate that and biopsy it,” said Dr. Levine. “And if it’s something they really think they can’t handle, maybe they can get you in to see a specialist sooner.”
6. Bring with you a list of questions to ask your doctor.
Even though you may think that you can remember all of your questions, it would be wise to write them down just in case. Dr. Tully suggests starting your list in the weeks and months leading up to your appointment. By doing this you will be able to remember symptoms that you were experiencing two weeks prior to your appointment but may not be affecting you the day of your doctors visit. Don't be nervous or afraid to bring anything up with your doctor. I'm sure they have heard it all before. “No patient should ever be afraid to ask their doctor anything,” said Dr. Levine. “Who else are you supposed to ask?”
7. Remember those health symptoms that you were Googling late at night...save them to ask your doctor instead.
Tell your doctor what symptoms you are experiencing. They will know better than Google if you have that rare disease that WebMD tells you that you have. Many doctors will advise you not to Google your symptoms because it's rare that you will get a factual and accurate diagnosis.
“I much prefer that my patients are honest with me about what they’re searching and what their fears are so I can help allay them if they’re completely irrational, which in a lot of cases they are,” Dr. Tully said. If your internet diagnosis turns out to be accurate, your doctor will be able to help lead you in the right direction in regard to treatment options.
8. Don't be afraid to break it off with your primary care practitioner and find a new one.
The first doctor you make an appointment with may not be the doctor you want to see for your next visit. Finding a doctor that is best for you can be like finding the right psychologist. Dr. Tully said that a lot of it comes down to personal preference. Are you more comfortable with a man or women doctor, someone older or closer to your age? These are all things to take into account when choosing a doctor. Trial and error will help you find the doctor that is the best fit for you and makes you feel the most comfortable.
“You’re not going to benefit from the relationship with your physician if you feel like they’re not answering questions, they’re not spending time with you, and you don’t have a comfortable rapport with them,” explains Dr. Tully. “You have to be your own advocate for your health care. If the physician you’re seeing is not a good fit for you, then you should switch for sure.”
If you want to look for a new physician, Dr. Levine suggests asking friends and family for recommendations, as well as researching doctor's backgrounds and reading their online reviews. Some doctors may even allow you to schedule a fast, free preliminary visit so that you can meet the doctor before you commit to a real appointment. “It’s almost like you interview your doctor,” said Dr. Tully. “It’s normally five to 10 minutes where you sit in their office and chat with them about their philosophy.” Finding a doctor that you like will make it easier to attend your annual checkups.