The 9 Best Ways to Be a Better Patient

How to get the most out of every appointment

Male patient

You sit in an exam room and let the doctor lecture you. You don’t take notes. You don’t ask questions. As a result, you leave unsatisfied — and without understanding what comes next.

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Don’t be that patient.

In the past, I’ve talked about the things you should expect from your doctor. But as a patient, what you do goes a long way toward better communications and care, too. Start with these simple tips to get the most out of every appointment — and improve your health in the process.

1. Ask the right questions

You expect clear communication from your doctors. You can help get it by asking the right questions:

  • Why are you ordering this test?
  • Why are you prescribing a certain medication? What risks should I know about?
  • If a procedure or surgery doesn’t work — or I decide not to have it — what other options are available?
  • How often have you treated my condition?
  • What can I do on my own to improve the outcome?

2. Don’t walk away in the dark

“You expect clear communication from your doctors. You can help get it by asking the right questions.”

David Longworth, MD

Chairman, Medicine Institute

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A visit to the doctor comes with a rush of information. Here’s a trick for making sure you understand it: Repeat what you heard back to the doctor or nurse, and ask if you got it right. And always take notes — or bring someone along to take notes — so you can remember later.

3. Know your record

Electronic medical records are becoming common. Some are even available through apps on your phone or tablet. If your doctor or hospital offers this option, use it. The more you know about what’s in your record — medications, procedures, conditions and more — the better you’ll be able to participate in your care.

4. Do your homework

Let’s face it, you’re probably going to check Health Hub or any number of health sites if you’ve been diagnosed with a disease. In the modern era, we actually encourage that.

However, don’t become anxious about what you find. Instead, use it to prepare questions or raise concerns when you meet with your doctor. And ask your care team for any educational materials they have.

5. Be open and honest

It is not easy to talk about bad health habits. Many patients are reluctant to own up to tobacco use, how much they drink, how much they really exercise or even about sexual issues.

But sugar-coating bad habits or nagging symptoms does not help. Your doctors are confidential partners in your care. They need all the information available to help you make smart decisions. That includes everything from your habits to every medication you take, including over-the-counter drugs, herbal products, vitamins and supplements. If you aren’t consistently taking medication, talk to your doctor about why — including if you can’t afford them.

6. Be a planning partner

In the old days, patients counted on doctors to dictate goals and treatment. Those days are gone. Get involved in creating everything from treatment plans to overall health goals. Want to lose 15 pounds? Talk with your doctor, nurse or registered dietitian about what diet and exercise will help you get there. Ready to stop smoking? Instead of waiting for a lecture on the dangers of smoking, ask for help crafting a plan to quit. From medications to therapy, help is available.

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7. Stick with the plan

Having goals is important. Following through on a plan to reach those goals is even more important.

Keep all follow-up appointments so you can check your progress. Take any prescribed medication as directed — and talk to your doctor if you have side effects and need to make adjustments. And if you settle on a weight-loss plan, do everything you can to meet goals and milestones along the way. We all have missteps, so when you have trouble meeting a goal, let your care team know.

8. Seek well care, not sick care

Doctors these days focus on wellness and prevention in addition to treating disease. You can do the same. Even in the best of times, ask about ways to improve your diet, manage your stress or pick an exercise plan that works for you. Your doctor can’t hand you a prescription for these things. But they will still do wonders for boosting your health and preventing disease.

9. Shop around

You have a right to know what your care is going to cost. You have a right to choose the care that’s best for you.

Fortunately, more tools than ever are available to help you do these things. For example, Medicare offers a hospital comparison site that provides information about readmission rates, infection rates and other quality factors for more than 4,000 hospitals around the country. Or try Quality Care Finder, which assesses physicians, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities.

It all boils down to a simple message: Be an active participant, not a passive patient. If you do this, you’ll be amazed by how much better your care is.

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David Longworth, MD

David Longworth, MD, is Chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Medicine Institute, Medical Director of Health Hub from Cleveland Clinic and a respected expert in infectious diseases.
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