There’s no course or degree in being a professional patient. The harsh reality is, most people are dropped and dragged through a fragmented system, with the hope that they will “just find their way”.
There are concrete steps we can implement to support patients in their quest to best prepare themselves for their clinical encounters with healthcare. Here are the top 10 to implement immediately:
- It’s time to coach for a change in mindset.
How many of us actually look forward to going to our doctor and healthcare appointments? (I can see the eye rolls and the looks of frustration as I write this.) We need to encourage patients to stop looking at their appointments as a waste of time, time that is lost, and time that the doctor takes away from them. Instead, patients should be prepared to seize their appointment time as “MY time for MY health and MY life."
- Get it in writing.
Patients should be encouraged to dedicate a notebook or note-taking app to maintaining all their notes and questions in one place.
- Help them get ready.
Patients should be encouraged to ask themselves the following three questions in preparation for an appointment, with answers written down in their notebook or note-taking app.
- Why am I attending this appointment? This seems straight-forward, yet in the context of chronic illness, multiple comorbidities, or life-altering conditions, like cancer or rare disease, patients see many physicians and often may not understand what the purpose of their scheduled appointment is. Language barriers and low health literacy can further complicate the situation. Having a care partner to discuss this with can be beneficial or even reaching out to the doctor’s office to speak with a nurse can help tremendously. Understanding why the appointment is necessary will help patients continue to prepare accordingly.
- What are my most concerning symptoms? Encouraging patients to focus on the top 1 or 2 symptoms that are most problematic at this present moment in time can help make an appointment more productive. In cases where there are many symptoms, patients need to understand that addressing them incrementally is more realistic than expecting all 15 symptoms to be fixed at once. As much as the doctors and care team want to help and heal their patients, we must do a better job of managing patients’ expectations and encourage building a trusting partnership with their doctors to continue working together to achieve the best health possible.
- What keeps me up at night? Some of the most concerning things in our health and life are the thoughts that keep us up at 2 am. When asked this question, patients may reveal, “I have anxiety about my upcoming MRI”. This may be addressed by encouraging patients to speak with the MRI technicians prior to the test to have them check in with them while they are inside the MRI with time updates and gentle, positive encouragement. Doctors could also prescribe a medication for anxiety to be taken prior to the test. Answering this question can help the care team meet patients where they really are.
- Get those forms early.
If this is the patient’s first time seeing a doctor, they should be encouraged to request all new patient forms to be mailed or emailed to them ahead of time so they may complete the forms at their leisure and answer any posed questions thoughtfully and thoroughly.
- Don't let previous medical records fall through the cracks.
If a patient is seeing a new doctor or going for a 2nd opinion, make sure they are reminded to request a copy of their medical records to be sent to the doctor before the appointment or to bring a copy with them. Copies of images on CDs should be obtained from radiology departments to bring with them to the appointment as well, as in most cases, images from various tests and procedures are not emailed, transferred, or forwarded between doctors and facilities. Many patients arrive at their appointments assuming that their care team has all of their medical records on hand which is sadly often not the case and leads to friction between the doctor and the patient.
- Patients should be encouraged to bring a care partner (a spouse, sibling, parent, colleague, friend, or loved one) with them to attend their appointment.
Not only can a care partner help a patient prepare for their appointment, they can ensure that all questions are asked, answered, and notes are taken. If a care partner can’t make it to an appointment in person, encourage patients to call them on their cell phone and listen in on speaker phone. Make sure patients give their doctors a heads up if they are planning on conferencing in a care partner to listen in and participate in the appointment!
- Guide patients to have a detailed list of all current medications (prescription and over the counter).
This includes their names, dosages, how frequently they take them, and who prescribed them, ready for their appointment. At minimum, patients should be encouraged to bring all their prescription bottles with them to be reviewed with the nurse prior to seeing their doctor, especially for a new patient or 2nd opinion appointment.
- Remind patients to scan the waiting room and exam room for information that may be helpful in navigating their care.
Point them to medical librarians at hospitals and cancer centers to assist with gathering credible information, both in print and online. Share any available resources openly with patients and their care partners. Care teams should routinely provide up-to-date, credible information on websites, apps, digital tools, as well as community resources, that may be helpful to a patient’s care and goals.
- Get them the power they need...to stay connected!
Provide charging stations or remind patients to bring a device charger with them.
- Encourage teamwork.
Encourage patients to be honest and firm, but respectful in their conversations with their care team.
It’s important for all of us to continue to network and share tips that have made the lives of patients and their loved ones easier. What are your favorite tips for new patients and existing patients to best prepare for their clinical encounters?
If you'd like to read more about helping patients navigate this tricky journey, read our free guide, "Uncovering the Secret Sauce to Patient Satisfaction" below.