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Dealing With Doctors: Taking Control of Your Health Care Destiny

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Many people -- and probably most -- don't grow up knowing how to arrange for or manage their own healthcare. For some, that’s because our parents, guardians, or other family members did it for us. For others, it’s because we never got regular healthcare so we could learn how it works. Some of us only went to the doctor, clinic, or emergency room when something was very very wrong; some of us had yearly check-ups with the same doctor, in the same place and knew we (or more likely our parents or guardians) could call the doctor’s office any time we were sick.

Whatever your healthcare was like growing up, you may be responsible for it now or very soon. Sexual healthcare is a kind of care that people often don't want parents or guardians involved in, so it may be that seeking out sexual healthcare is where you find you first need to navigate your healthcare on your own.

We know that can be daunting or intimidating. But managing your healthcare mostly just comes down to the following things:

  • Doing some research.
  • Being and staying organized.
  • Communicating clearly and respectfully, asking questions and taking responsibility for gathering and keeping the information you're given.
  • Recognizing that your health matters and is very important, and keeping that strongly in mind, and in practice, in all your interactions with healthcare providers.

Those are the barest of basics. What follows are specifics so that you can hopefully feel more capable and less frazzled as you start managing your own healthcare, or find some helps to troubleshoot care that's not working out for you in any way. What the healthcare you get, of any kind, is like, and how it'll go, will depend on your own health, the kind of healthcare you have access to, and your personal preferences about the kind and frequency of healthcare you get. How it all goes will also often have just as much to do with you as it does a provider.

This is the well-being of your own body and mind we're talking about here: being able to navigate the healthcare system, to whatever extent you choose to do so and are able to do so, is a crucial skill for maintaining or improving that well-being. So, have a read about choosing a doctor, calling to get an appointment, preparing for an appointment and getting the most out of your interactions with healthcare providers and healthcare support staff.

Choosing a Healthcare Provider

When you're starting to take care of your own health, the first thing you'll usually need to do is to decide whether to stay with a current healthcare provider (if you have one) or choose a new one. If you already have a provider you like, it’s a good idea to stick with them if possible. They will already have an extensive record of your health history and will be familiar with your needs from having examined and talked with you over time. Continuity of care like that is ideal.

Eventually, though, you will probably be faced with the task of choosing a new health care provider. Your current provider might retire, you might move to a new city, your healthcare plan might change, or your needs and preferences for what a provider can offer might become different. Alternatively, you may never have liked the provider that was chosen for you by family or guardians, and may jump at the chance to switch when you finally can.

Through the years, we’ve talked to many young people who have expressed concerns about discussing personal health needs with providers who also see their family members. Healthcare providers are required, when not by law than at least by ethics, to keep things confidential, no matter how many members of the same family they have as patients. We know, though, that many people are still intimidated by the idea of sharing a provider with family members and may refrain from sharing important health info out of a continued fear that the information will make it's way back to family. If you're feeling this way, and have been holding back on telling your provider about everything that is going on with you health-wise, finding someone new to provide your healthcare, if you're able, is likely the best choice.

The type of health coverage you have (if any) will usually impact how much of a choice you have in who your healthcare provider will be. The choice, when you have one, can sometimes seem overwhelming. If you open up the phone book or visit your insurance provider’s Web site, you’ll probably see a huge list of names.

What are you looking for in a provider?

An important step in finding a good provider for you is to decide exactly what you are looking for in a healthcare professional. Go ahead, sit down and make a wish list about what you need and want. With your list in mind when you begin your search for a provider, you'll be more able to find someone who will mesh well with you.

You may want to ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I need a specialist or would a primary care provider better suit my needs? (Tip: if you want someone who can help you get started with any health issue or concern that may arise, or you're in a "I don't know what's wrong with me!" space, a general provider, rather than a specialist, is who you want.)
  • Is the gender of my provider important to me? Will I be more comfortable with a doctor of my own gender? Is age important? Am I more comfortable with a younger provider or an older provider? What about things like culture or ethnicity? Does the provider I'm considering even speak my language or have a translator on staff? Do I need a provider who is LGBTQ-friendly or knowledgeable and open to other similar parts of who I am?
  • Am I more comfortable with an MD, or will a nurse practitioner or physician assistant better suit my needs?
  • How far away from my home am I willing and able to travel in order to reach a provider? 5 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour or more? Can I get to this doctor or clinic by walking, biking, bus or train, or do I need a car or someone to drive me there?
  • Do I have any accessibility needs that will influence which office I choose? Is the office accessible to my mobility needs? Is the office staff familiar with and courteous about serving my accessibility needs?
  • What personal characteristics are most important for my provider to have? Like, excellent bedside manner -- otherwise known as having some social skills -- an outgoing personality, quiet, asks lots of questions, takes a patient’s own observations of health very seriously, et cetera.
  • Am I comfortable seeing a provider I already know personally (like a friend or relative) or who treats other people that I know (like your mom’s gynecologist or your family physician)? Or would I prefer someone who has fewer connections to me outside the patient-provider relationship?
  • Are there any dealbreakers I have about a provider?

It may be that your choices with providers are limited (though even with healthcare systems like clinics, where you can't always choose a doctor, you still can often ask for someone else if and when your provider isn't working for you; you also can often express a desire to see one of the doctors in that clinic versus being randomly assigned). If this is the case for you, you might want to give some thought to what's a need versus what is a want. Can you handle having a provider who isn't very outgoing, for example, if they're easily accessible through public transit and are professional and respectful, if not warm and bubbly, in their interactions with you? It's good to know what you want in a provider, but also good to keep your wants reasonable so you have the best chance of getting your healthcare needs met.

Some of the best sources for information about providers in your area are the opinions and experiences of others. You can ask friends, relatives and co-workers about who they go to for health care and how satisfied they have been with the care they have received. This input can be especially helpful if you are new to an area or if are looking for a specialist. People are generally happy to provide honest assessments of their own experiences with the healthcare system.

If you know any nurses or other health care providers in the area, they are often particularly good people to ask for suggestions as they will have the "inside information" about who is good and who to avoid. You may also find our Find a Doc feature helpful to search for a provider.

What Kind of Provider Do I Need

There are many different types of health care providers available who specialize in many different areas of medicine. You should consider your specific concerns as you decide what type of provider you want to consult. Some health coverage plans will require you to see a primary care provider (PCP) for all concerns and require that the PCP make the referrals to specialists. Other healthcare insurance systems allow you to make an appointment with whichever type of provider you choose.

Listed below are titles and descriptions for several types of healthcare providers to give you a sense of what's what and who's who. The specific titles and credentials may vary depending on where in the world you live, but you'll still probably be able to find providers who practice in these basic fields, just possibly under another title.

Primary Care Physician/Provider (PCP) – A PCP is a general doctor or health care provider. Rather than specializing in only a certain system or part of the body, primary care physicians focus on a person's overall health. You may see a primary care provider referred to as a "General practitioner," "GP," "family doctor," or "family practitioner."

A PCP is usually the person you'll see for a yearly checkup, sports physical, and for general physical ailments. Some PCPs will also do gynecological or urological exams, PAP smears, STI testing, prenatal care, and deliver babies. Your PCP will generally be the first person you call when you have a health concern. After examining you or talking with you, they may refer you to a health care professional in another field if they feel that you could benefit from more specialized examination or treatment, or if what you need per your care simply isn't something they're qualified to provide, like a surgery, mental health therapy, or treatment for a chronic illness.

Obstetrician/Gynecologist (OB/GYN) – A gynecologist specializes in healthcare for what's classified as the female reproductive system (the uterus, vagina, vulva and related structures) and pregnancy. These providers generally do yearly gynecological exams, PAP smears, STI testing, contraception consults, prenatal care, and deliver babies; some are also abortion providers. They also specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of reproductive problems.

Urologist – A urologist specializes in healthcare for what's classified as the male reproductive system (the penis, testes, prostate and related structures).

Dermatologist – A dermatologist specializes in skin and skin related problems. They treat a range of problems affecting the skin, including acne, psoriasis, skin cancer, hair loss, and other diseases of the skin, on any part of the body. Some dermatologists also offer cosmetic procedures.

Neurologist – A neurologist specializes in problems related to the nervous system. They will treat conditions like migraines, cerebral palsy, spinal injuries, brain tumors, pain conditions, and other problems affecting the brain, spinal cord, or nerves.

Endocrinologist – An endocrinologist specializes in the endocrine system. They focus on diseases like diabetes, hypothyroidism, osteoporosis, and other conditions affecting or affected by hormones and other chemicals in the body.

Surgeon – Surgeons may focus on general surgery or on more specific areas like orthopedic surgery, gynecological surgery, plastics, and so forth.

Mental health professionals – There are several different types of professionals who specialize in psychiatric or psychological healthcare. A psychiatrist is a doctor who specializes in psychiatry and mental illness. A psychiatrist, as part of treatment, may prescribe medications to help with a variety of psychological conditions (depression or anxiety, for example). A psychologist usually holds a doctoral degree and is licensed to treat patients. Psychologists are not trained or licensed to prescribe medication, and focus instead on psychotherapy. If a psychologist believes that medication may be beneficial for a patient, they will make a referral to a psychiatrist or other doctor who can do an evaluation and prescribe medication if necessary.

You may also hear the words counselor and therapist used to describe mental health professionals. While a psychologist or psychiatrist may use those labels, there are counselors and therapists with other types of training and credentials. These people may have degrees and qualifications such as a Master's Degree in Psychology or Counseling, MSW (Master's in Social work), LCSW, LPC, or NCC.

Other specialties – There are many other health care providers that focus on other specific problems, concerns, or areas of the body. Some specialists will also treat populations with specific needs related to age, like pediatricians (newborns to age 16-21) or gerontologists (later in life). Other medical professionals you may encounter include those in the dental professions (oral surgeons, dentists, etc.) and eye specialists (optometrists and ophthalmologists).


Doctors are not gods. Some people have a hard time working with, or even thinking about, doctors because they feel like doctors are these magically, massively powerful people with all the answers and education, more than anyone else. While it's true that doctors have advanced education and are given a lot of power in our world, please remember they're just people, people who were able to get and pursued the study and practice of medicine, just like say, chefs were able to get and pursued the study and practice of cooking. It's tough to work and communicate well with someone we elevate too much: if you find you're doing that, just remember, they really are only people. If in doubt, check out their nose hairs, or take a whiff of their breath. If you believe in the idea of god, you probably don't figure your god(s) smells like a ham-and-cheese sandwich.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants

In some cases, you may find that you will not need, want, or be able to seek care from an MD (a medical doctor). You may instead be seen by a nurse practitioner (NP) or a physician assistant (PA). Some people prefer to receive treatment from an NP or PA because they often have a different approach to patient care from that taken by many doctors.

Nurse practitioners generally hold a master’s degree in nursing in addition to being registered nurses (RNs) and other certifications as NPs. They have additional training that allows them to diagnose and provide treatment (including writing prescriptions) for many common conditions.

NPs may practice generally as PCPs or they may specialize in an area like endocrinology or pediatrics. Some nurse practitioners are also midwives. Although NPs may have their own medical practices in some places, in most places, medical requirements mean that they will be a part of a physician's practice.

NPs often have a different outlook on care than do physicians. NPs have been trained to treat the whole person by considering their condition as it relates to their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Although some physicians do practice from this perspective, it is more common among NPs and PAs. They tend to place a stronger emphasis on wellness and are usually able to spend more time with patients to discuss preventative health measures.

Physician Assistants are licensed health care providers who give care under the supervision of a physician. PAs go through accredited training programs, the majority of which involve earning a master’s degree. Although the supervising physician will often review their charts at a later time and may provide consultations on difficult cases, PAs usually carry out the day-to-day activities of diagnosing and treating many common medical conditions. Like NPs, they often focus on treating the whole person and place a significant emphasis on prevention.

Other medical and office staff you may encounter

When you call or go to a medical practice there are also a variety of other individuals that you may encounter. These range from the people who answer the phone to individuals who help with your treatment. It may help to know about the various functions of the office staff so that you will be able to interact with them more easily and comfortably.

Nurses are generally found in most medical facilities, including hospitals and private medical practices. A nurse may be an RN (registered nurse) or an LPN (licensed practical nurse). RNs have typically received a more extensive education than LPNs, though both categories are governed by professional regulations and must be licensed to treat patients.

Nurses will often assist during office visits and procedures that are conducted by physicians. They may take your vital signs (temperature, weight, blood pressure, etc) and medical history during your appointment. A nurse may also be responsible for providing patient’s with education and information about a condition or treatment that has been prescribed by the doctor.

If you call the office with a question for the physician, you may be asked to speak with the nurse, who can often answer your questions without needing to consult the physician. (If they cannot answer your question, they will consult the physician and get back to you.)

Medical assistants perform similar duties to those of nurses in some practices. While medical assistants have generally received some training, they are not licensed health care providers. While certifications are available, not all medical assistants choose to take the exams to become certified.

A medical assistant may assist a doctor by taking a medical history and vital signs for a patient, helping during exams and procedures, and providing additional information after a diagnosis or treatment has been given. You may also be asked to speak with the medical assistant if you call the office with a question for the doctor. If the assistant does not know the answer, they may consult with the doctor before providing you with additional information.

Nursing assistants, orderlies, and others may also be encountered during your trip to the doctor's office or hospital. These are generally other staff who work under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. They may help by doing jobs like taking vital signs, helping with feeding and hygiene, or performing housekeeping tasks.

Other office staff are also vital to keeping medical practices running smoothly. An office manager who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the practice oversees most offices. Other staff members may do things like manage medical records, answer phones, schedule appointments, handle payments and insurance and other similar tasks.

When you call a medical office, the first person you will usually speak with on the phone is a member of the office staff. Keep in mind that while these individuals are an excellent source of information about things like scheduling, cost of treatment, and insurance, they are not medical professionals, so they will not typically be equipped to answer specific health questions. If your reason for calling is to ask a medical question, you'll want to make that clear and ask to speak to someone who can answer your medical questions.

How to Pay

How you pay for visits to healthcare providers, for tests, and for other medical needs will vary based on what your resources and options are. You'll most likely be in one of these three situations:

  • You have private health insurance, either because you or your employer has purchased it or because one of your family members or your partner has purchased it or gets it through their employer.
  • You may be a recipient of public health, either because the government where you live provides this to everyone, or because you've applied to the public health where you live and have been found eligible.
  • You have no insurance and no public health.

If you use private insurance: To find a healthcare provider who takes your insurance, you can either call your insurance company, reference any paperwork they've provided you or your family, or visit their website. You'll find the company's phone number, URL, or both on your insurance card, which you'll want to have handy if you call them, as it has the identification numbers you will need to access information on your specific plan. Once you have a list of providers that work with your insurance company you can narrow down the list by asking yourself the questions posed in the Choosing a Healthcare Provider section above and call those providers to see if they are taking new patients. Some insurance plans will allow you to select which type of provider you'd like to see. Others will require you to see a PCP first who will then give you a referral to a specialist if needed.

Every private insurance plan has different policies regarding which payments will be their responsibility and which payments will be the patient's responsibility, as well as how much of the cost they'll cover and you will be expected to cover. Most medical appointments, examinations, tests, prescriptions, procedures, and so forth will cost you a co-pay, an amount of money you have to pay because the insurance won't cover the entire cost. Your insurance company can tell you what the co-pay is for different services and prescriptions. Your provider's office staff will also be able to tell you, usually at the time of your appointment, what the co-pay will be, and may require you to pay while you're there, sometimes before your appointment begins. When you call to book an appointment, you'll want to ask what payment forms the office takes, such as cash or credit card.

If your healthcare provider recommends a test or a prescription medication, ask them if this test or medication is covered by your insurance, and if so, to what degree. If your insurance company doesn't cover that test or medication, ask your provider about alternatives, such as generic brands of medications, that your plan does cover.

If you are using your government's healthcare insurance system: The process for getting information and finding providers with national or public health is similar to the process with private insurance. Whichever system you can receive healthcare from will have a phone number (if not more than one) you can call to get information, and a website detailing policies and procedures. To find a provider who takes your public health coverage, you'll want to start with a list provided by your public health system. If you live somewhere where publicly funded health care is available to everyone, any provider you choose will be covered under your government's insurance plan. Alternately, if your national or public health has walk-in clinics, you can go to any of those and get information there.

Many public health plans provide complete payment coverage for most routine care. Some may not, however, cover certain types of care or parts of care such as prescription medication, or may not cover them fully. If your healthcare provider recommends tests or medications, you will want to talk with them about whether those are covered under your plan and, if they are not, whether there are other tests or treatments which your plan will pay for.

Some public health insurance plans, such as Medicaid in some American states, will assign you a Primary Care practitioner. If this is how your plan operates, you may not be able to get a provider who meets your needs and wants. However, if the provider assigned to you works in an office you cannot easily access, or the provider's personality or way of working with patients clashes with your personality in a way that makes getting your healthcare needs met difficult, you can advocate for your need to get a healthcare provider who is accessible to you.

If you do not have insurance OR national/public health: If you have neither health insurance nor coverage from a national or public health plan, you'll need to find healthcare providers or clinics who accept cash or credit/debit card payments and, of course, the money to pay for them. Some areas do have free clinics for general or specialized care for low-income, or otherwise uninsured patients, so do check your phone book, or ask at a community center, to see if any free care is available in your area. If you live near a college or university, some schools have low-cost clinics where supervised medical students can provide you care.

Not all doctors or clinics will accept uninsured patients, or those paying with cash, so you'll want to always call first and ask about that. Others will, and some even give discounts to cash-paying patients, so be sure and ask about that, too. If there is national or public health available in the area where you live, make sure you really aren't eligible: while a day spent at the social services office isn't the most exciting day ever, and can be frustrating, it may result in you getting healthcare coverage you didn't know you could get, saving you a bundle and allowing you to better care for your health. Sometimes eligibility changes from year to year, too, so because you couldn't get public health last year doesn't mean you can't get it this year.

Know that if you need emergency care -- like if you've broken a leg, had a high fever for days, or are having severe mental health problems, like strong suicidal urges -- in many parts of the world, you can't be refused emergency services at hospitals or urgent care facilities simply because you don't have insurance or public care coverage. They usually still have to treat you, even if you can't pay for care. You may be billed later, and have to deal with paying that bill, but they still have to treat you. In this situation, do just be sure to let staff know, if you can, that you do not have money or income when you don't. You may be able to file paperwork as an indigent person that greatly reduces your fees, or allows you to pay on a payment plan.

Making an appointment

So, you’ve done all of your homework and have found a provider that you want to see. Now, it’s time to pick up the phone and make an appointment.

What do I need to say? If this is your first visit with this provider you can just say, “Hello, I’d like to make an appointment to see ___(the provider’s name)___. Are they accepting new patients?” In some practices, only so many new patients will be accepted each month or they may only be seen at certain times. If they say no, you can ask for a referral for a doctor who is accepting new patients, or call the next doctor on your list.

If you've seen the provider before you can say, "Hello, my name is ___(your first and last name)__ and I am a patient of ___(your provider’s name)___. I would like to schedule an appointment."

The person on the phone will either help you schedule an appointment or may transfer you to someone who does scheduling. If you're transferred to someone else, when they answer the phone, just say the same thing you said to the first person who answered the phone. The person you’ve been transferred to may not have been told who you are or what you want.

Once you're speaking with the person who can schedule your appointment, they'll probably ask you several questions. You'll need to say and spell your full name. You'll be asked why you are making the appointment. They don't need a 20-minute explanation of your problem, just the basics, like: "I need an annual gynecological exam and STI tests," or "I’ve been having bad headaches for the past two months."

The staff member may ask for your home address, phone numbers, date of birth, social security number or other government-issued form of identity, and insurance information, so you should have all of this information handy before you call. If you prefer the office contact you at a certain phone number (like your cell phone number), you must specify it at this time. Otherwise, the office will probably call your home phone number to verify your appointment or give test results.

If you're only available certain days or times, go ahead and tell the scheduling person. For example, if you have class on weekdays until 2:00pm, let them know that you want an appointment time after 2:30pm. The office may or may not be able to accommodate your requests, but you can at least let them know about your preferences.

They may not be able to put you on the schedule right away. Some offices may be booked out by a month or more and may have different policies around scheduling new patients versus scheduling returning patients, so make sure that you call far in advance of the date you want to be seen. If it is an emergency, let them know that you feel it is urgent and would appreciate the earliest appointment that is available.

If there isn't an appointment available that works for you, you have two choices. You can go ahead and book an appointment that is available and ask to be placed on a cancellation list, which means that someone will call you if another patient cancels and you can then take their appointment time, so you can get seen sooner. Some offices instead will ask that you call everyday and ask if there are any cancellations. Your second choice is to thank the office staff, hang up, and call another provider to see if you can be seen sooner. Or, you can ask the office staff you're on the phone with for a referral to someone else who can see you more quickly.

You can also ask how long the appointment will probably take when you're making an appointment. This way, you can make sure that there is adequate time in your own schedule. It's sound to add at least thirty minutes to the time estimate given by the office, by the way. Sometimes the doctor or other provider may be running behind due to emergencies or other circumstances.

The last thing you'll want to do before you hang up the phone is to ask if there are any special preparations that you should make before your appointment or if there is anything special you should bring with you. For instance, most doctors will want to schedule a pap smear at a time a patient isn't menstruating, some tests require an empty stomach, others a full bladder.


At an appointment, you might want to take a trusted family member or friend with you for moral support, or to be an extra pair of ears when you're getting important test results or discussing a treatment plan, but whomever you take with you won't be able to, and shouldn't be, making decisions for you. If you want someone with you but don't want them in the exam room at any time, you can just ask them to leave or not to come in, or, you can ask your doctor, nurse or other staff to request they leave. As always, too, if you want someone with you and are concerned about privacy with your life or health information, or are concerned about that more generally as a minor, you can always ask your doctor or other healthcare staff about their privacy policies in advance of disclosing information or of any examinations.

Preparing for your appointment

If this is your first appointment with a provider or if you have not been seen in a year or more, you should plan to arrive at least 20-25 minutes prior to your scheduled appointment time since you will probably have paperwork to fill out before you can be seen. Otherwise, plan to arrive 10-15 minutes early. If you're running late for an appointment, call the office if you can and let them know when you will be able to arrive.

What should you bring?

When you get to your appointment, you'll check in with the office staff. They'll want to take care of your ID and payment information then, and you'll usually be asked to fill out some paperwork. It helps to prepare the information you'll need ahead of time, making it easier to fill out paperwork and answer questions.

Insurance or public health card (if you have insurance or public health) & an ID card – One of the first things the office staff will ask you for is your insurance/public health card, if you have one. If it's not in your name (if it's in the name of one of your parents, for example), they'll also probably ask you for the name of the primary person on the insurance and for their date of birth. Some offices also ask for a copy of a photo ID (if you have one) as well, so you should make sure to bring along your driver’s license, government-issued ID, or military ID.

Your medical history and family history – The paperwork you'll fill out before your appointment will usually ask about what diseases or conditions you have and what conditions or illnesses your blood relatives have experienced.

You might have to ask your family members about that before you go, and it's a good idea to make yourself a card or paper to carry in your wallet that lists all of that information, since it can be tough to remember, especially when this is all new to you. If you just don't know this information -- or can't, because you don't know anything about your blood relatives and can't contact them -- that's okay, just leave that section of the paperwork blank.

Medication list – You should also bring along a list of any prescription and non-prescription (this includes vitamins and herbal medications) drugs that you are regularly taking: the name of each medication, when and how often you take it, and what dosage (the bottle has that information written on it) you take. It is also sound to include the reason you're taking the medication or supplement. If you have recently been taking over-the-counter medications, be sure to list those as well.

Dates of your last menstrual cycle – If you menstruate, your doctor will want to know the date your last period (or withdrawal bleed) began. If you chart your menstrual or fertility cycles, so have information like how many days your periods last, or your daily cervical mucus or basal temperatures, you might want to bring that information, too.

Approximate dates of your last self-exams – Your doctor may or may not ask you about your most recent self-examinations, but it is helpful information to have just in case. Try to write down or remember the date of your last self-breast or testicular exam.

Dates of your last immunization and any tests you’ve had done recently – If you have access to them, your healthcare provider will want to see your immunization records so that they can check to see whether anything needs to be updated. Also, if you’ve recently had any blood tests, STI testing, or scans (MRI, PET, etc.) Your provider will want to know who ordered the tests and where you had them done.

A list of any questions you want to ask – Especially if you are nervous about going to your appointment, you may find it helpful to make a list of the questions that you have for your health care provider. By bringing a list with you, you will be sure that you don’t forget anything. Also, if there are questions you want to ask but are embarrassed about, having them written or printed out ahead of time will allow you to have the option of saying, “I have a question, but I’m embarrassed to ask,” and handing them the paper with your question on it.

After you’ve completed the paperwork and have given it back to the staff, you'll usually sit in the waiting room and wait until your name is called and read some boring, out-of-date magazines. You may only wait a few minutes or it may be longer, depending on how busy the office is that day.

The Appointment

The specifics of your visit will vary depending upon why you have sought medical care and what type of provider you are seeing. However, there are some common things you can expect:

Getting Weighed and Measured – When you first come into the treatment area, a nurse or medical assistant will probably get some additional basic information about you. They may measure your height, weight, blood pressure, and pulse.

Overall Health – The nurse or medical assistant will ask some general questions about your overall health. This can include questions about medications (even if you listed these on an earlier form, they may still ask), existing medical conditions, sexual activity, and other health behaviors. You may also be asked about the purpose of your visit. You should answer all of these questions honestly to assure you get the care you need.

Doctor Dressup – Depending upon the purpose of the appointment and the policies of the office, you may be given a gown and asked to put it on at this time. Generally you won’t be asked to do this right away if you haven’t met the doctor before. If you are uncomfortable with this, you should let them know that you would rather meet or see the doctor first.

The Exam (You Don't Need to Study For) – The primary health care provider (doctor, nurse practitioner, etc.) will come in. They'll take a moment to look over your chart and may ask some additional questions. Again, answer honestly: your provider will only be able to help you if you are honest with them. They'll probably spend some time speaking with you to get information about your health and then conduct a physical exam. The specifics of the exam process will depend on exactly what type of healthcare you are receiving. For GYN exam questions, see our article Your First Gynecologist Visit After your exam, they'll likely talk with you more, whether that's telling you everything's fine and they'll see you next year, suggesting tests, treatments or medications or giving you instructions about how to take care of your health or health issue from here. If you are being given any medication or device -- including methods of birth control -- this is the time to be sure to ask any questions about it, like how to use it, how it works, possible side effects, or what to do if you don't take it properly.

If you had any tests done, ask before you leave the office when and how you will get your results. Some practices will call you with the results, while others prefer that you call after a specified date to request your results. If they plan to call you with your results, you should verify the phone number you want them to contact you at.

"But what about…?": When You Have Questions Later

Despite your best efforts, you may find that you still, or later, have questions after you leave the office. It’s always okay to call and ask any additional questions. Many people think that they have to schedule and wait for another appointment if they have follow-up questions or basic health concerns that come up. Nope: many questions can be answered with a simple phone call.

So, you can just call into the office and say, "Hi there, my name is ___(first & last name)___ and I'm a patient of Dr. ________. I have a question about ___(a prescription, a condition, etc.)___. Can I please speak to a nurse or medical assistant?" At this point, you'll probably be put on hold, OR the person answering the phone may wish to take your name & number to have someone call you back. They may ask for your date of birth or other identifying information so that they can pull your medical chart. They're not blowing you off when you're put on hold or if they say they'd like to call you back. The person you need may be busy or they may be able to better answer your question with your chart right in front of them.

State your problem or question as clearly and concisely as possible. Provide all the details that might be relevant. Get as much clarification as you need before you get off the phone. If, after this conversation, you feel like you have way more questions, or want to make a change like switching a medication, or trying a different treatment, then you'll probably want or need to go ahead and schedule another appointment for that.

For questions about how to take your prescription, about drug interactions, and other things to do with medications, your pharmacist is also an excellent source of information. Pharmacists have access to the most current information on prescription and over-the-counter medications. Contacting your pharmacist for questions related to medication may be quicker and easier than contacting your healthcare provider's office, and the pharmacist can always let you know if your question is better handled by a doctor or other provider.

Asking Questions

One of the most difficult parts of dealing with health care providers can be asking questions and getting them answered adequately. Medical practices are often very busy, and providers can seem -- and be -- rushed. However, part of providing good health care is making sure that patients understand the information they've been given and answering their relevant questions. So, you do get to ask as many questions as you need to about your health and healthcare. If you are clear in your questions and show respect for any limitations the provider states, most providers will be more than happy that you're asking questions and actively taking part in your healthcare.

Don't expect your provider to automatically answer every question without you ever asking a one of them: these conversations will often have a lot of back-and-forth. Also, don't expect your provider to know what's going on with you physically even if they've examined you. They're looking for certain things in their examination, but won't always be able to tell how you've been feeling, or if you've been having unusual symptoms, unless you talk about that: what you can and do tell them with words is equally important and valuable information. Bodies alone often can't tell a healthcare provider all they need to know.

Because health care providers are human too, they aren't mind-readers, so they can't always anticipate or know what you want to know. They may also unintentionally not give you some information that you feel you need. As a responsible patient, and as a partner in your own care, it's your job to ask questions. A provider will often assume you understand what they’ve told you unless you tell them otherwise. Do your best to speak up! Ask for clarification several times if necessary. Make an effort to ask all the questions you can think of that relate to the care they're giving you and will give you the help and information you're seeking. This is your health, be assertive!

How to Get the Most From Your Visit: Some Tips

Be as clear and detailed as possible. When you're explaining a problem to your healthcare provider, be super-specific. Instead of saying that your arm feels funny, you'll want to say it aches, itches, twitches, tingles, is painful, or some other descriptive term that will hopefully give your provider a clear sense of what is going on with you.

Be prepared to answer many questions In order to help you with a health concern, your provider will need to ask you a series of questions. Diagnosing and finding a solution is an investigation of sorts, one where you, as the patient, need to participate in just as much as the healthcare practitioner. Providers don't ask a ton of questions to be nosy or to offend you: they usually ask what they do to try and serve you best. The clearer you can be with your answers, the easier it is for the provider to do their job. It is okay to say that you don't know the answer to something if you don't, or to say that it's difficult to describe something and you're having trouble finding the words. Chances are that the provider can ask you more specific questions to help tease out the answer.

Some healthcare topics you might consider discussing with your provider over and above basic healthcare and managing current health issues are:

  • The impact of your family history on your current and future health
  • Ways you can improve or maintain your current health, also known as preventive health.
  • Current or future sexual and reproductive health needs
  • Any possible future impact of current health concerns

Below are some of the types of questions you might ask in specific situations. Many of them are open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are useful when you want to know as much as someone can or will tell you about any given topic. When you need a more specific answer, rather than just general information, ask a question that is more pointed. There are some of those kinds of questions below, too.

Questions to ask once/if you’ve received a diagnosis:

  • How will this diagnosis change my daily life? How do I need to change my daily life to best manage this condition?
  • What does this mean in terms of my long-term health?
  • Will this increase my risk for developing other diseases/disorders? If so, which ones, and how can I reduce those risks?
  • What kinds of ongoing care will I need and how often?
  • Are there any changes in how I feel I should pay close attention to or let you know about?
  • Where can I get more information so I can continue to learn and be as informed as possible?
  • If I am having trouble, or have any concerns, and it's not during your office hours, what should I do?

Questions to ask when being prescribed medication or other treatment.

  • How exactly does this medicine or treatment work? How can I know if it's working or not, and when will I know?
  • Will this interfere with any of my other medications or treatments? Are there any medicines, foods, or other things I need to limit or avoid while taking this medication?
  • What are the side effects of this medication or treatment? Are some more common than others?
  • Is this the only option? What will we do if this doesn't work out for me?
  • I want to make sure I have all the information I need to take this medication correctly. Is everything you've told me included with the information packet that comes with the medication? If not, can you write down the information you've given me?
  • I'm worried about my ability to swallow pills. How should I take this medicine if I have trouble with the pills?

The aim of the information above has been to give you tools and starting points for managing your health and healthcare. Even though that was a lot of information (phew!), it's just not possible for us to account for all of the various health situations you might encounter, or the intricacies of every single healthcare system. If and when you need to know more, you can use some of the tools we've given you here to ask for more help or information from someone directly involved in your care or your particular healthcare system.

written 13 May 2013 . updated 16 Apr 2014

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Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.