What Your Physician Wants You to Share, Know and Ask
Prepare for Your Next Appointment
Updated March 2023
You’ve found a physician. Congratulations — that’s the first step to taking care of your health. The next steps on the path to better? Asking the right questions, as well as knowing and sharing key pieces of information with your physician to get the best care possible.
Kevin P. Most, DO, chief medical officer, senior vice president of Medical Affairs at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, and practicing family medicine physician, reveals — in his own words — four things he wishes all patients would share, know and ask at appointments:
Your relationship with your physician is important to your health.— Kevin P. Most, DO
1. Share your complete (and honest) history.
Physicians are taught many things, including not to judge. Our most important role is to keep you healthy, which requires us to know your health history. It also requires you to feel comfortable enough to share details we can’t get from a blood test or stethoscope.
The one area many patients have a difficult time accurately sharing is their social history. This is the point in a medical visit where you are asked about your employment as well as alcohol, tobacco and recreational drug use. We don’t ask to be nosy. We ask because each of these personal data points can impact your health. Every employment position has some risk, whether it is sitting at a desk all day on a computer (carpal tunnel, back pain or heart disease) or working in a factory (musculoskeletal issues or chemical exposure).
The use of alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs are often underreported by patients, which can affect overall health. For example, cigarette smoking has been legal for a long time, yet patients who smoke often do not want to share their smoking history. Knowing this history and the extent of use, however, will trigger simple tests that can identify lung cancer at a stage that is still treatable. Alcohol use can increase your risk for heart disease and some cancers, and can cause liver disease or even liver failure. But, without an accurate history of use, we won’t look for indicators of failure. Regular use of cannabis may require you to have additional pain medication or anesthesia during and after surgical procedures.
Please share accurate information with your physician. Knowing your complete medical history will enable your physician to provide better care.
2. Know what medications you are taking, including possible side effects.
If you’re taking any medications, it is important your physician is aware of each one. It can get confusing too, especially if you have multiple physicians and prescriptions. With so much information, it’s easy to forget why you are taking a medication and its possible side effects. That is why keeping track of all of your medications on paper, on your computer or with an app is great idea. If your healthcare organization uses a patient portal like MyChart, which is called MyNM at Northwestern Medicine, your medication history will be in your online chart, including possible side effects.
If you have documentation of each of your medications, you’ll be more aware of side effects, too. And, once you notice a side effect, it is important to alert your physician who may need to change a medication or adjust a dose. If side effects, cost of a prescription or something else keeps you from taking a medication, tell your physician that right away, too. There are often other options available to keep you healthy. We welcome the chance to have a conversation about something so important.
3. Know where to get trusted health information.
We appreciate patients who take the time to study and understand an illness, treatment and trajectory. However, it is in your best interest to have your physician diagnose your condition and discuss options instead of consulting the internet. Your physician has the advantage of having your physical exam, medical history, family history, environmental exposures, dietary issues, lab results and many other data points that the internet doesn’t have. Your physician has also been trained to take all of your information, as well as your wishes, into careful consideration before determining your care.
If you use the internet to get medical information, make sure you are using trusted sources. And, if you do find anything online that you have questions about, share it with your physician. Use the information you find on the internet to ask questions of your physician, but let your physician make the diagnosis and discuss options with you.
4. Ask how to be healthy but know the answer is complicated.
Patients frequently ask physicians, “What is the best way for me to get healthy?” It’s a great question, but the answer is not as simple as you would think. Every person is in a distinct point in life where health can be defined and prioritized differently.
As a young adult, the decisions you make set a foundation for your future health. Eating well-balanced meals, getting regular exercise and avoiding or minimizing alcohol and tobacco set the tone for your overall health and longevity.
As you age, preventative care such as routine screenings are critical. If you have children, the importance of setting a good foundation for your children’s health is key to their future health. Are you making good health decisions that your children are mirroring, such as maintaining a balanced and healthy diet and exercising regularly? Do you openly discuss emotional issues, watch for concerning behaviors and get help for your children when needed? Your healthy habits and mental health check-ins will go a long way in keeping you and your family healthy.
As you continue to age, it is all about the numbers: weight, body mass index, blood pressure, step count, and cholesterol and blood sugar levels. If you work on keeping these in normal ranges, your chance of having a heart attack or stroke decreases dramatically. Make sure you are getting an annual physical to check these numbers and seriously consider using simple at-home monitoring devices, such as a blood sugar meter, pedometer, blood pressure monitor and bathroom scale, in between physicals.
Remember that health is a spectrum. Depending on where you are in your life, your health goals will be different. Your physician can work with you to create a personalized plan that will help you achieve your goals in a healthy, responsible way.
The Patient-Physician Trust Factor
There are many factors to consider when choosing a physician, including convenience, location, insurance coverage, availability, ease of appointment scheduling and personal preference, but the most important factor is trust. Here are three questions to ask yourself after every appointment:
- Did the physician listen to me?
- Did the physician communicate at a level I understood?
- Do I trust the physician?
If you walk out of an appointment without a feeling of trust or clear understanding of what was discussed, that is concerning and could be a sign that this physician is not a good fit for you. Your relationship with your physician is crucial to your health. Make sure you are comfortable with who you choose for your care so you can feel comfortable asking questions and sharing your medical information honestly.