How to get the most out of a consultation with your doctor

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Describing the problem

How to get the most out of a consultation with your doctor

What are you looking for when you go to see your doctor?
What is it that you want from him or her?
How will you manage to achieve that successfully?

Some people seem to find the experience both disappointing and frustrating.
The most frequent grumbles say something like…”He didn’t seem to listen” or
She was in a hurry” or
She didn’t look at me” or
He wrote me a prescription, but I didn’t want it” or even
I wanted a prescription for antibiotics, but I wasn’t given one“.

What do you want from this conversation?

Some suggestions

GP vs Hospital

Most of these suggestions apply first of all when talking to your GP. Hospital appointments can be a little different. The discussion usually concerns one specific diagnosis such as diabetes or heart disease. The clinic in which you are seen is mainly designed to follow this problem and the nursing and medical staff will have a particular interest in this condition. The discussion is therefore usually much more ‘single track’ and your hospital notes will record a running commentary of your progress.
Whether at the hospital or with your GP the same advice applies about talking to the doctor.

What are you looking for?

You want to be recognised as an individual. You would prefer not to be thought of as a ‘fifty-year-old woman’ or a ‘twenty- year- old man’ or just labelled by your diagnosis… but as a person with your individual history, special concerns and personal needs.
And this is what the doctor wants to know too, who you are and what it is that you need.

If this is the first time you visit a practice the doctor will need a lot of background information: your past medical history, what medication you take and your social circumstances, are you working, do you have a family etc.

The start

When you come in the doctor will usually stand up, shake your hand and tell you their name and perhaps who they are… e.g. “I am a trainee or a partner here”.

There will probably be a short exchange of relevant pleasantries such as…..”Sorry to keep you waiting”…..”How is the new baby?”…..”Hope you were not caught in the rain”….. These kinds of comments start the ball rolling, break the ice…establish you as a person. They start to create some rapport, some personal connection with the doctor…they establish a little bit about what you have in common as people. Both you and the doctor will feel more at ease and able to discuss your problem.
Then you want to get quickly on to what brought you to see the doctor.


It can take a little time to explain why you have come, but time is limited so it helps enormously to think this through before you go in. It needn’t take long for most problems to be introduced and for you to describe how you are affected. You will want to explain the problem, how long you have had it and how it affects you.
For his part the doctor will want to know what the problem is. How long have you had it?
How does it make you feel? He will probably also ask if you have been abroad recently. Many problems previously only seen in a hot climate are now making an appearance in Britain. Problems such as tropical diarrhoea, malaria, tuberculosis or parasites can be picked up on holiday. The doctor may need to consider these as well as more common causes for your symptoms.
When explaining yourself be brave and be clear. The doctor will have seen it all before. So don’t be embarrassed or too ashamed to mention personal matters. The doctor will not be telling anyone else and needs to know the details.

Next stage

When you have got the problem off your chest what do you want next?
You would probably like the doctor to question you in a relevant and focused way that shows that he or she was listening and has taken in what you said.
And you might like a little bit of sympathy too!…at least an expression of some fellow feeling such as “Oh that does sound painful” or “That must be quite upsetting”.

The doctor will want to show that he or she has some sympathy for your situation but not too much!
It’s not much help if the doctor gets too involved and upset and can’t be objective and give you the benefit of their professional experience! That’s not really going to help you deal with the problem.
But it would be nice to know that they understand how you feel.

Doctor’s questions

And now you want them to use their experience to put the problem in context…to ask you carefully about aspects of the problem that you may not have considered. When exactly do you get the pain? Is it related to food? Can you describe it further? Is it dull or sharp, burning or aching, worse when you take a deep breath? Or associated with exercise?
What can you do, if anything, to relieve it? What makes it worse….for example.

As a general rule try not to volunteer straight away what you think is wrong. This kind of information can ‘stifle’ the discussion and lead the doctor up the wrong path. Allow a doctor to use their skills and experience and work it out for themselves. A good doctor will ask what you think is wrong but only after seeking the diagnosis for themselves.

After you have told the doctor about the main problem is there anything else?

Do you have a hidden agenda?

Just occasionally you may have decided that you want to sound the doctor out on a minor matter before you decide that you are prepared to discuss something that is actually more important. The wise doctor may pause at this point in the consultation and ask you if there is anything else you want to mention while you are here. That’s a very useful question at this stage.

You may actually be really worried about something else but feel it is too distressing or embarrassing to mention straight out. If the doctor is sympathetic then it might be bean- spilling time! It might be time to explain why you really came. (that is if you do have another agenda…but mostly of course people are straightforward and do say what they mean…it’s just nice to know the doctor is aware of the possibility of other issues)

From the doctor’s point of view, it is better to ask about other problems now rather than being taken by surprise as the patient turns the door handle on the way out and looks back with an unexpected question!
If that happens the doctor is in a real quandary. There is probably a waiting room full of impatient patients waiting for their turn. On the other hand, the doctor may judge that this last issue is critical. What should they do? Ask you to sit down for a moment and explain or mention the queue and suggest that you make another appointment as soon as feasible? The circumstances will have to dictate how that is handled.

The doctor’s notes

So when you are talking to a doctor what sort of information does he/she note down?
There is a lot of information which is relevant to you and your past and which may have importance in your current problem.
Doctors have developed a kind of shorthand….a series of bullet points and acronyms which are very useful. Here are some of them:

Information the doctor notes down

C/O : what you are mainly complaining of, the reason you came in.
HPC: history of the present condition
PH : past history including previous illness, childhood illnesses, operations, accidents
PGH & POH : past obstetric and gynaecological history including date of last period
FH: family history, what illnesses other members of your family especially your parents and perhaps grandparents have had.
SH: social history, what you do for a living, where you live, do you have a partner, who are they. (Remember this consultation is protected by a promise of confidentiality)
TH: travel history, where you have been abroad recently? Tropical diseases are now quite common in the UK
Allergies especially to medication, plasters, rubber, x-ray contrast media as well as food allergies and asthma.
Current medication; what medicines you take regularly or frequently including “over the counter” drugs such as Neurofen or Aspirin.

What happens when the doctor examines you.

Once the doctor has a good idea what has brought you to see him or her, they will probably want to examine you.

They certainly should usually want to examine you if your problem is in any way physical.
Quite often nowadays an examination is not done. This may be because of lack of time or, for example, because the doctor thinks that a scan or an X-ray will give a better answer. This is not always right. A scan will not for example see a skin rash or hear the heart sounds or measure the limitation of a shoulder joint. An X-ray will not see a patient wince in pain or find one set of muscles weaker than another.
Good doctors know that the information gained from doing an examination is invaluable.

Key Points on The Consultation:

The consultation.

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