Your First Appointment with a New Doctor

At some point in life, most of us need to visit a new doctor. There are times, however, when the experience can be less than hoped for. We may find ourselves thinking on the way home, “Oh no, I forgot to ask about side effects to look for with my new medicine” or “I should have asked my new doctor what to do before my upcoming surgery.” So that you don’t have these regrets, here is some advice to help you make the most of your first visit with a new doctor. You can also use this advice if a family member or other loved one asks you to assist them with what to expect on their first appointment with a new doctor.

Steps to take before your first appointment with a new doctor

There are several reasons why you might see a new doctor. You may be dissatisfied with your current doctor and seek out a new one. You may be looking for a second opinion on a diagnosis or recommended treatment. You may have to find a new doctor because of changes to your insurance coverage. If the new doctor is a specialist, the most likely reason for your visit is that your primary-care provider (PCP) feels that your symptoms are beyond his or her expertise. In this case, it is important that you have a clear understanding of why you are seeing the specialist. Is it because a standard course of treatment has not reduced your symptoms? Have you had blood tests or other baseline diagnostic tests but still have no clear diagnosis? Be sure to write down your specific reasons for seeing the specialist (beyond the obvious one — that your PCP referred you).

When you are referred to a specialist, you should request the specialist’s name and specialty in writing so you can best prepare for the first visit. (Getting the specialist’s name in writing will allow you, if you’d like, to do some homework so you feel confident that the specialist has the right training and credentials and will be a good fit for you.) In many instances, the PCP will have his or her office staff set up your initial visit with the specialist. While this does take some control out of your hands, most of the time having the staff make the appointment works to your advantage. The staff will have pertinent information from your PCP about how quickly you need to be seen and what the PCP thinks may be your medical issue. The staff can also provide you with any special instructions in preparing for the appointment.

Before seeing a specialist you should also check with your insurance company to make sure you follow their rules for specialist referral. Depending on the insurance plan and the specialist you are seeing, the insurance company may require that your PCP submit a record of the referral to them. Your PCP’s office may also have information on different insurance procedures for a referral. Get this sorted out before you get to the specialist’s office because if you don’t have a required referral, the doctor won’t be able to see you.

Prepare your medical records

Once you’ve scheduled your appointment with a new doctor, the first thing you should do is make sure the new doctor will be able to get a copy of your medical records. Without your medical records, including test results, it will be much more difficult for the new doctor to get to the root of your problem. You may find yourself having to make a return appointment that would otherwise be unnecessary, or you may be sent for tests you’ve already had.

Information technology has changed how we communicate in health care. One example of this change is the emergence of the electronic medical record (EMR). If the new doctor you are to see works within the same health system as your PCP, there is a good chance that he or she will simply be able to pull up an electronic version of your medical record on the computer. (If an EMR is not available, then the new doctor will have access to a handwritten paper chart.) If the new doctor you will be seeing works in a different system, then it is important that you sign a “Release of Medical Records” request form. This allows your PCP to send your medical records to the new doctor. It is best to submit this form a week or two before your appointment with the new doctor to allow enough time for the records to arrive at his or her office. (If you will be seeing the new doctor in less than a week, you may want to ask your PCP whether you can get a copy of the records and carry them to the appointment yourself.) The release form may allow you to specify the records you want released. If this is the case, and you are seeing a new doctor about a specific medical issue only (rather than changing doctors completely), be sure to include all records dating back to when you began experiencing symptoms, including all test results since that time.

Prepare any additional information to present to your doctor

Your medical records, however, do not tell the whole story of your health. You should, therefore, prepare for your first visit with a new doctor by writing down a complete picture of your past and current medical conditions and treatments.

Pulling together this information ahead of time reduces the likelihood that you will forget important information that will help your new doctor make a diagnosis or prescribe effective treatment. The information you will want to collect includes the following:

  • your current health conditions;
  • any over-the-counter and prescription medicines you take, as well as vitamins and supplements;
  • any allergies you have;
  • your health history, including conditions you’ve had, medicines you’ve taken, and procedures (such as surgeries) and medical tests you’ve undergone;
  • your family’s health history — this includes any conditions that your parents, grandparents, siblings, and children have or had;
  • the names and contact information of other doctors you have seen.

Having all this information on hand can help the doctor immensely. For example, if a symptom you have been experiencing is due to an over-the-counter drug, your doctor will be able to make the connection only if he or she knows that you are taking the drug. (If you take many medicines and feel it might be confusing to write them all down, plan to bring all the bottles to your appointment to show the doctor.)

Usually, the doctor’s staff will give you a medical history form to fill out when you arrive for your appointment, and you’ll enter on it the information you have gathered. However, some doctors are willing to send out the forms for patients to look over and fill out ahead of time. See if this is a possibility with your new doctor. You may even be able to fill out the form online, depending on the doctor’s setup.

A second way to prepare for your first office visit is to complete a symptom diary. A symptom diary is a daily record of the symptoms you experience over a period of several weeks or months. Each entry should start with a description of your symptoms followed by the time of day the symptoms occurred, the length of time they lasted, anything that may have relieved the symptoms, and any other factors associated with their onset. A symptom diary can help you and your doctor discover that your symptoms follow specific patterns. For instance, a woman with a lupus rash may find that the rash becomes more prominent after she’s been out in the sun. A man with joint pain may find that it intensifies after he’s been sitting for long periods.

A diary of symptoms is most helpful if you begin it when you start noticing symptoms, but it can be useful even if you start it a few days or a week before your first appointment. In either case, look over the diary before going to the doctor and ask yourself a few questions so you can best explain your symptoms to the doctor: Are my symptoms worse at any time of the day? How long do they usually last? Is there any obvious trigger that sets them off? You may even want to show your diary to the doctor if you think it will help him or her understand your symptoms.

You should also bring with you a list of questions that you want answered during your first office visit. (See Questions for the Doctor for examples of some commonly asked questions.) The list will prevent you from forgetting the main points that you want to cover. It can also eliminate the last-minute “Oh by the way can you explain . . .” as you walk out the office door.

The day of the first visit: What should you plan for?

Now that you have completed all the preliminary steps, you have to consider getting to the doctor’s office. If you are unfamiliar with its location, call ahead to get directions, plus parking information if you’ll be arriving by car. This will ensure that you have no problem getting to your appointment and will help put you at ease. You might find it useful to actually go by the office beforehand to be certain you know where it is.

Plan to arrive at your appointment 15 minutes early. Each doctor’s office has a slightly different check-in procedure. Generally, the front-desk staff will need to verify or update your information (including your insurance information). Again, the staff may be able to pull up this information on the computer, but changes can and do occur between appointments, and it is crucial that the staff be up-to-date. It is a good idea to bring along your insurance card because the front-desk staff may need to copy or scan it. Your insurance card may contain important information about co-payments or contact information for requesting prior authorization for medical tests or drugs. And, if you have not filled it out already, you will need to complete a medical history form.

What should you expect while in the doctor’s office?

After you complete your front-desk check-in, a nurse or medical assistant will bring you back for your appointment. At this first visit, the doctor will most likely schedule-in a little extra time. This is so that the doctor can collect as much information about your condition as possible. At times you may feel as though you are answering the same question multiple times. While this can be frustrating, it is really a way for the doctor to fully understand your symptoms and be sure that he or she has the whole picture before making a diagnosis or recommending tests or treatment options.

Make sure you get answers to all the questions on the list you drew up ahead of time, plus any questions that are raised by what the doctor has to say

For example, if the doctor orders a test, you might ask what it’s for. Make sure also that you understand everything the doctor is saying to you. Do not hesitate to ask the doctor to spell difficult terms or write down information that is hard to understand. You may find it helps to repeat what you heard the doctor say, either in his or her own words or in a paraphrase. It can also be a good idea to bring someone else with you to your first appointment. Many times a trusted friend or family member can remember something that you missed or can act as your scribe and take notes for you.

Toward the end of this first office visit, you should have a clear understanding of how and when you will be following up with your doctor

If the follow-up involves test results, you should know how you will get these results once they come in. Before you leave, ask for the name and phone number of the person to contact should you have questions later.

While the process of preparing for your first office visit may seem time-consuming, in the long-run your preparation will help the visit be a much more rewarding experience. It will give you answers to questions important to your health and well-being, and it will help the doctor understand your condition better so that he or she can treat you effectively.

Want to learn more about making the most of a doctor’s appointment? Read “Talking With Your Doctor.”

Marilee Bomar is a Nurse Practitioner in the University of Missouri’s Department of Family and Community Medicine.

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