Working With Your Doctor to Stay Healthy

Physicians from ancient times to the present have recognized that good health requires that doctors and patients work together.1 This is true now more than ever, with physicians expecting patients to play an active role in all aspects of their care. By actively participating in their health care, patients can help to prevent some of the medical errors that give rise to injury and medical malpractice lawsuits.

Here are some things that you, as a patient, can do to help keep your health care experiences positive:

Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Good health begins with prevention of illness. Ask your health care provider about the diet and exercise program that would be best for you. Your health care provider should have guidelines regarding immunizations and screening tests for cholesterol, various types of cancer, and other diseases. Follow these recommendations. Some health advice applies to everyone—stop smoking and do not take illegal drugs. Healthier patients tend to have fewer complications to treatment and a smoother recovery.

Carry important information about your health with you so that you can assure that your health care provider has accurate information about your health. This information should include:

  1. A list of all of your medical conditions and the names and telephone numbers of the doctors who are treating you for each. Remember to include doctors who have treated you for significant problems even if you have not been seen for that problem for a long time. Remember to include your dentist!
  2. An up-to-date list of all of your medications, including the dose, when you take the medication, why you take the medicine, and who prescribed it. Make certain to copy the name from the pill bottle instead of guessing how it is spelled, since many medications have similar sounding names. Also remember that non-prescription medicine, herbal supplements, and vitamins are also medications and should be on your list. Update the list every time a medication is changed.
  3. A list of all of your medication allergies and other allergies. Your doctor also needs to know about any other reactions that you have had, such as stomach upset.
  4. The date of your last tetanus shot.

Many people have special matters that their doctors should know about. Make sure that your doctor knows if you have been traveling, especially on cruises, to wilderness areas, or to other countries. Both developed and undeveloped nations have some diseases that commonly occur there but uncommonly occur here. If you routinely work with chemicals or animals, your doctor should know about it.

Before you see your doctor for a scheduled appointment, write down your symptoms and the questions that you would like to ask so that you do not have to try to remember them.

Ask your health care provider to teach you about your medical condition. Important things to know are whether the condition is temporary or permanent, whether it will change for the better or worse over time, and whether there are any symptoms that require that you call your doctor or go to the emergency room. Ask for written information about your diagnosis and the treatment. If you do not understand the information, ask your doctor to explain it.

Ask whether your symptoms could be caused by some other condition, and whether any tests need to be done to confirm your diagnosis before beginning treatment. Most of the time, symptoms can be caused by a number of different illnesses or diseases. Doctors call this list of possible causes the “differential diagnosis.” The differential diagnosis often lists some diseases that are dangerous and some diseases that are not. For example, chest pain can be caused by dangerous conditions such as a heart attack as well as non-dangerous conditions such as indigestion. While it is encouraging to hear that your diagnosis is not dangerous and nobody likes to hear bad news, it is vital that your doctor has ruled out conditions that are life-threatening.

Follow up on your tests. When you have laboratory, x-ray, or other tests done, ask when the results should be available. If no one calls you with the results, do not assume that everything was normal. Call your health care provider to find out the results and whether the results require some response.

Find out everything you can about your medications. Medications often have common side effects that you will be told about. They may also have rare but serious side effects; ask your health care provider or pharmacist about those. Always ask for and read through printed drug information. Often the information is very technical. If you do not understand the information, ask the pharmacist to explain it to you.

When you fill your prescription, discuss with your pharmacist:

  1. The reason for the medication;
  2. Side effects;
  3. Interactions with other medications and food;
  4. When you should take the medication; and
  5. When you can stop the medication.

Be informed about risks of any recommended elective surgery and ask about alternatives, including the alternatives of no surgery or surgery at a later time. Elective surgery is surgery that can be scheduled and is not emergent. Frequently there is more than one way to treat a medical condition. Find out about all of the treatment options and the risks and benefits of each before you make any final decision. Your health care provider should be willing to discuss this with you and to help you obtain a second opinion if you want one.

Be choosy when you need an operation or diagnostic procedure. You should have operations and tests performed by the physicians who do them best at health care facilities that do them frequently. Sometimes problems (complications) can occur during tests and procedures even when they are performed correctly. Experienced specialists and health care facilities that are devoted to the type of care that you need will be better prepared to handle these problems.

Hospitals often have statistics about their treatment that you can obtain to help guide your choice of where to have your procedure. Frequently, each hospital will have strengths and weaknesses, so different hospitals may be better for different problems. See, for example,

If you have been treated at different hospitals for different problems, make certain that your physicians are aware of all of your hospitalizations since the medical records at one hospital will probably not contain information from another. Your doctor can request that information be sent from one hospital to another.

Obtain written discharge instructions for procedure and hospitalization. Read through the instructions before you go home to make certain that you understand them. If some one will be caring for you when you go home, that person should read the instructions and be able to ask your health care provider questions as well.

1  AMA Ethics Policy E-10.01, Fundamental Elements of the Patient-Physician Relationship.