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Making the Most out of Your Doctor's Visit


Updated May 31, 2012

We've all heard it before – "My doctor is arrogant," or "I don't want to go back to her." Sadly enough, this is common prose when people recant horror stories about office visits. The only one who ends up suffering could be the person who is now struggling to find another doctor: you. Dealing with doctors should be the least of your concerns, especially if you are fighting colon cancer. Learn how to make the most out of each visit and advocate for your own medical care.

Just as you have certain rights as a patient, you are also encumbered with a number of patient responsibilities. To make the most out of your brief physician encounters:

  • Arrive at the office on-time and prepared with a list of pertinent questions, symptoms or concerns
  • To the best of your knowledge, provide direct, honest answers to questions
  • Bring a family member or a notepad to help you recall any technical terms
  • Ask questions if you don't understand your instructions, diagnosis or treatment plan
  • Inquire about the next step -- where do you go from here?

In addition to a basic list of questions, you should also bring a list of every medication you take, including non-prescription (also called over-the-counter) drugs, vitamins and other nutritional supplements. Some herbal preparations have the potential to interfere with prescription drugs.

If you cannot remember them, it may help to write down any concerning symptoms. Try to include exact descriptors of each symptom – don’t generalize. Instead of "my stomach hurts" you could say, "I've had cramp in my lower belly and diarrhea for two weeks." The better you are able to communicate your concerns, the better your doctor will be able to assist you and formulate a diagnosis and treatment plan.

If you are going to see a new doctor, such as a surgeon or gastroenterologist, you should also:

  • Bring your medical records and prior test results with you
  • Have a list of questions prepared
  • Inquire if you are supposed to follow up with the specialist or with your primary doctor
  • Ask who is responsible for obtaining the insurance referrals for suggested service (your primary doctor or the specialist?)

What Are Medical Records and How Do I Get Them?

Your medical records are a highly confidential accounting of any medical encounter, treatment or test you've received. You have rights to see your files, but only after you have given the provider notice (such as a request for medical records) and signed an information release. Some offices request a period of time, such as five days notice, prior to releasing records. Don't wait until the last minute to request them, as the provider is not bound by law to get your records to you immediately.

A request by email or a phone message may initiate the process, however your signature is required to actually obtain the records (or your healthcare surrogate's signature, if you have one). You can ask the medical staff for help; perhaps they can scan, email or fax your records to a specialist directly. You may be required to sign a release for that transmission, and some practices charge a printing fee (per page) for extraordinarily thick medical records.

Communicating Effectively

Whether you are aware of it or not, you communicate constantly in two ways: through the things you say and through the things you do. In turn, your doctor communicates in the same manner. Nonverbal communication methods include your body posture, facial expression and any gestures you or your doctor make. This wordless communication can help express interest in you or your health concerns – or make you feel ashamed of your concerns.

A doctor can easily express nonverbal interest in your concerns by making direct eye contact while you are speaking or by wearing an open, inquisitive expression. If he or she is using poor body language, she may be slouching, writing while you are talking or sitting with her arms crossed over her chest. These communication techniques are what gives you the instinctive (the doctor didn't actually say anything wrong, you just didn't feel a connection) like or dislike of your healthcare provider.

Getting a Second Opinion

While you're trying to decide on the best method to treat your colon cancer, you have the right to a second opinion – period. Don't be ashamed or embarrassed to ask, and most certainly don't worry about hurting the doctor's feelings. This is your life, your disease and you are entitled to learning whether or not another doctor concurs with your primary doctor or oncologist. Many insurance companies pay for a second opinion and some providers actually encourage it. If you're still hesitant about asking, reframe the question and involve your current doctor in the decision. Inform your doctor that you are going to pursue a second opinion and ask if he or she has recommendations for another doctor.


American Cancer Society (n.d.). Getting a Second Opinion. Accessed May 29, 2012.

HelpGuide.org (n.d.). Nonverbal Communication. Accessed May 29, 2012.

FamilyDoctor.org (n.d.). Tips for Talking to Your Doctor. Accessed May 29, 2012.

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