Preparing for a Medical Appointment

By Bonney Elliott on February 5 / 2018

[Cancer, Cancer Coaching, Caregivers]Comments

As a Cancer Coach, I work with people living with cancer and their loved ones to regain a sense of control after a diagnosis of cancer. A frequent question: How to best prepare for a medical appointment?  Some tips to lower your stress and make the most of your time with a busy specialist:

  1. Budget time to get there early, whether you are driving, taking public transport or getting a ride. Negotiating driving conditions and traffic, finding parking, making your way around the hospital… will inevitably take more time than expected. Arriving rushed could add to your stress and make it harder to be present to what is being discussed.
  2. Build in some breathing room after the appointment.  Avoid having to rush back to work or home immediately afterwards if possible. You will be less likely to fret if your medical practitioner is running behind, and you may be more tired than you expect from the stress and the rush. Have a back-up plan, for example, for kids who need to be picked up after school.
  3. Think ahead of the questions you want to ask. Pick the top three things you absolutely need answers to and write them down ahead of time. Consider sharing the list with your health professional at the beginning of the appointment before you both get sidetracked with other issues.
  4. Track your symptoms between appointments. Use a simple system such as a one month calendar page to jot down the timing and intensity of symptoms relevant to your medical care such as pain, sleep quality, appetite and mood, and the use of as needed medications.  This will make it easier to answer questions and problem solve with your health practitioner.
  5. Also keep track of what is going well. Note your successes and positive ways of coping with the challenges you are facing.  If you have found a great website, support group, physiotherapist let your health team know about it. They may not be aware of all the resources available in your community.
  6. Be prepared for the sights, sounds, smells, and tedium of waiting for a medical appointment Checking and rechecking your watch, empathizing with other patients who seem unwell, or imagining worse case scenarios about your own health will add to your stress. Have a plan for coping with the wait.
  7. Consider bringing a waiting room survival kit. Include an activity to keep your hands and mind busy such as knitting, a crossword, or a tablet. A water bottle, a snack, maybe even a pre-paid gift card for the hospital coffee shop. Light, engaging reading material. Calming music or a podcast to listen to and a good set of headphones. An extra clothing layer to keep you warm in case of drafts or over active air conditioning. Lip balm and skin moisturizer. A charger for your cell phone. Remember to pack any medications you may need to take.
  8. Work in partnership with your health care team.  Take a few moments to establish a human connection with your practitioner before getting down to the business of the appointment. Make eye contact, introduce yourself and any support persons you have brought along, shake their hand if that feels comfortable, ask them how their day is going. A little friendliness goes a long way.
  9. Give the appointment your full attention.  Leave babies and small children with a caregiver if possible, as their needs can be a distraction. Turn off your cell phone. Take a deep breath before starting the conversation. Let your health practitioner know right off the bat if symptoms such as pain, fatigue, high anxiety, or cancer related brain fog interfere with your ability to concentrate on what they are saying.
  10. Make sure you understand the plan of care.  Ask for clarification of words or phrases that are new to you.  Write things down as you go. Take your time signing any consent forms. Summarize your understanding of what is happening and the plan for next steps back to your health practitioner so that they can clarify any misconceptions.
  11. Keep the communication flowing. Take business cards from your health providers, and make a point of asking how you might best communicate questions or urgent concerns that come up before your next appointment. Most health professionals are receptive to responding to a brief follow up email or phone call, if not directly, via a patient designated nurse or their receptionist.
  12. Bring a second pair of ears along. Busy healthcare workers often talk fast and may use a lot of acronyms and medical jargon. Even Information that seems to make perfect sense may need further clarification later. Do not underestimate the barriers to absorbing and retaining everything you will hear, especially when it comes to a cancer diagnosis. Whether you are quite familiar with medical language, or have rarely needed to access the health care system before, a support person can be invaluable. Ask them to take notes, or even (with your health professional’s permission) film or record important details.
  13. Request a cultural or sign language interpreter if you need one, particularly for appointments where big treatment decisions are being made. If English or French is not your first language, or you have a hearing impairment, let the person booking your appointment know ahead of time. Unlike your multilingual cousin or friend, interpreters are specifically trained to understand medical terminology, and to make sure that the correct information is not lost in translation. Most clinics will book extra time for appointments involving interpreters.
  14. Keep a health binder and bring it with you to every appointment. At the very minimum, it should include a current list of any prescribed and over the counter medications and supplements you are taking, past and present medical conditions, as well as the names and contact information of all of the health professionals involved in your care. Consider asking for and adding to the binder paper copies of medical results discussed during your appointment.
  15. Bring your agenda or electronic calendar to record future appointments at the time you make them. Include in your notation the location of the appointment, a contact phone number and any instructions. Business cards, prescriptions and lab requisitions are easily misplaced. Consider stapling them to your agenda or taking a picture.
  16. Take time to regroup after the appointment. Take another deep breath, and check in with yourself. As soon as possible, jot down any details you want to remember and follow up plans. You may want to take a few minutes to debrief over coffee with your support person or call someone you care about before driving home, particularly if you have just received bad news.

Do you have other suggestions and personal experiences to share about preparing for medical appointments? We would love to hear your ideas and feedback.

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