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Make time count when visiting doctor

By Richard L. Bergeron

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


I've visited more doctors than I care to remember, and as I've become older, I am more aware how important time is. No, not the remaining time I have to live, but the quality of time I spend with my doctors. I figure when I make a doctor visit, the time we have together is limited to about 10 or 15 minutes. As a retired doctor, I know what it is like to schedule a doctor's day, but I must admit I don't always like being on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship.

Not that my doctors aren't the best; I think they are, for the most part. They are warm and genuine people who care. But with the demands put on them by insurance companies, HMOs, the government and their office staff, they have to be very organized and protect their allotted time for each patient, and some time for themselves, too. And if you're a Medicare patient, they may not be earning a whole lot of money for your visit.

Physicians, unless they are psychiatrists who allot 50 minutes or less per session, want to put us all into a cubbyhole in terms of our problem. If we don't neatly fit into one of their diagnostic codes, they get upset because of the strain on time to figure it out. After the first two or three minutes, they want to have all the information they need, and they want to write a prescription and move on to the next patient.

But what do seniors want from their doctors? How can we get the most out of our doctors in the few minutes we are together? How do we make the time count?

Seniors, like everyone else, want to know the facts. What is that nasty cough? What can be done to get rid of it? How long will it take? Can I go about my daily routine?

But, there is at least one more thing: As we get older and more concerned, we want some reassurance this is not the beginning of the end. If that's on your mind, tell the doctor.

The key to using your time well is to be as organized as the doctor. This is not always easy for older people. So, make a list of your concerns and put them in order of importance. Have a list of the medications you take and bring a copy to leave with your doctor. Bring a pencil and paper and take notes. Look at the visit as an opportunity to learn.

If the doctor starts using medical jargon to explain things to you, tell him you haven't finished medical school yet and ask him to show you a picture. How often have you come home from the doctor's office and been asked by your spouse or friend, "What did the doctor say?" and not be able to remember in detail what you were advised? When it comes to medical care, the broad brush stroke doesn't work too well. You need to know exactly what was recommended.

It makes sense to bring someone along to the visit. It may be embarrassing to have a family member or a friend with you, but, hey, this is your life we're talking about, and they can excuse themselves when the physical exam takes place. Make sure the other person knows that he or she is invited to be an extra listener. The presence of another person is not intended for the doctor to talk over your head. If he does, redirect him. Show him where your head is located. After all, he hasn't been in an anatomy class in a long time.

You're probably older than your doctor, and that gives you some seniority. When I started with my physician he seemed so young, just finished with his medical training. Unfortunately, being a caring physician has aged him. And I wonder, at times, as I did when I was practicing, whether the extraordinary responsibility a physician carries makes him wonder if he made the right choice. Your doctor deserves your appreciation, so be sure to treat him or her with the same respect you want to get in return.

The patient-doctor relationship, like any good alliance, is a matter of reciprocity.


-- Dr. Richard L. Bergeron is a doctor of dental medicine, who practiced most recently in Maine. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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