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Planning for a Health Care Appointment

Author: Lauren Wheeler, MD, BCPA

Purpose of this guidance: Paying attention to a few minor things can help make your health care appointment a success. While carrying your medical records is important, clarity in communicating with your provider is even better. Below are a few tips to help make your appointment a success.

If you have an appointment coming up with anyone on your health care team, it can help to plan ahead, practice clear communication strategies, and solidify your follow-up plan. These general steps can help you make the most of the limited time you have with each professional and get your needs met.

Preparing for the Appointment: Questions to Ask and Records to Bring

What information should I bring? Generally, each provider will need you to tell them what the other members of your team are recommending. Even if they have access to medical records from others, they may not have had time to review them, or they may have forgotten important information. It’s up to you to know what’s happening with your health.

So, while getting different offices to share records is important, you also need to know the highlights yourself, including:

  • Medications: Especially if anything changes, you need to keep everyone updated on what you are actually putting in your body to keep you safe.
  • Diagnoses: Any major medical or mental health conditions should be known by everyone. Update your team as things change.
  • Surgeries and hospitalizations: These events are always relevant.
  • Important test results: For example, if you have a biopsy or imaging done, it’s helpful to know what was found.
  • Symptoms: The more accurately you can tell a doctor about what you are experiencing, the more likely they are to be able to give you an accurate diagnosis.

Naturally, new doctors will need to know everything, while providers you’ve seen before will only need to hear about what’s changed since you last saw them.

How else should I prepare? It helps to write down the questions and topics you want to talk about ahead of time, especially if you’re worried that you might forget something. Once you’ve made a list, order it by what’s most important to you for that day. By talking about the thing that’s bothering you the most first, it gives you the best chance of having that issue fully addressed.

If you need to use an interpreter, be sure the office knows ahead of time.

Tip: By focusing on what the professional in front of you CAN help you with, you have a better chance of accomplishing something with your appointment. For instance, if you have an appointment with an audiologist to get a hearing test, that person is not going to be able to help you with a new pain in your toe or help you understand why a nurse was rude to you in the hospital last month.

Communicating Effectively With Your Health Care Provider in Appointments

Once you’re in the appointment, the conversation may take turns that you didn’t expect. You may not get all of your issues addressed in one appointment, but you should be offered the option to make another appointment to make sure everything is fully covered. To help you roll with the punches during an appointment, it can help to start with a few simple strategies:

Active Listening: This means paying close attention to understanding what the other person is saying, both in words and in their nonverbal communication, and asking for clarification when you don’t understand something. It’s not thinking about what you want to say next. Ideally, both people in the conversation use active listening skills.

Direct Preference Communication: As the patient, it’s your body and your health at stake. What you want for your life matters. If something is proposed that you won’t be able to do (or don’t want to do), say so. If something is confusing, say so. If you think there’s something the other person is missing, say so. Clear communication about your wants and needs will help you and your team work together to create a shared plan for your care.

Empathy and Understanding: Of course, we want our team to treat us with empathy when we talk about our ailments. However, a little understanding of their workplace can go a long way in building a healthy relationship. For instance, many doctors feel rushed in appointments and would genuinely like to be able to spend more time with their patients. If you feel that you are running out of time, bring it up and ask if you should make another appointment, talk to a nurse to get more education about your diagnosis, or look for reliable information online.

Take Notes: If you worry that you won’t remember everything, taking notes can help. So can bringing a friend or family member to help listen. You can also ask the professional to write down the key information for you.

Follow Up After the Appointment: Understanding Instructions and Next Steps

Check Understanding: After your appointment is complete, take a moment to review the information, whether that’s in your car or later at home. Be sure you understand everything, and don’t hesitate to call if you need something repeated or clarified.

Follow Through: Often, your provider will give you “homework” or something you need to do on your own, like get a test done, make an appointment with a specialist, or pick up a medication. Sometimes you’ll need to figure out how to change your lifestyle or routine, like to incorporate time for exercise or cooking at home. If you can’t follow up on these items right away, make a plan for when you will.

Learn More: If you find that you want more information about a diagnosis, treatment, or test, there are several great options for reliable, trustworthy information:

  • Nurses and other professionals: Sometimes, there are people on your healthcare team who can help educate you about your condition and treatments, such as diabetes educators, nurses, and pharmacists.
  • is a reliable website reviewed by doctors that exists only to help people learn about their health.
  • Learn to read scientific research, or at least try to stick to sites that end in .gov or .edu or are linked to academic medical centers (e.g., Mayo Clinic). Sometimes you will find information that is outdated or based more on expert opinion than proven fact, but at least you can get enough information to have a conversation with your doctor or other provider.

Seeking a Second Opinion: When and How

Sometimes, you might walk out of an appointment feeling dissatisfied or unsure. Maybe your personality clashed with your provider’s or maybe you don’t trust that the treatment option they suggested is the best or only one for you.

These are times when it is appropriate to ask for a second opinion, especially if you are considering a potentially costly or risky treatment (like surgery). In many cases, insurance may cover a second opinion too.

Once you know that you want to ask for someone else’s expert opinion, the next step is to decide who to consult. Many people find their second opinion through:

  • Asking their doctor or other provider—most professionals understand that people need second opinions from time to time and will be happy to refer you to someone
  • Researching online for providers and places who have a lot of experience dealing with your condition
  • Asking for recommendations from friends and family—they might have a good sense of who you’d match with in personality


Planning ahead for your appointments can lead to maximizing the value you get out of them.

Additional Resources:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC-BY-SA-4.0), available at SPDX-License-Identifier: CC-BY-SA-4.0

Signed-off-by: Lauren Wheeler

Payless Health is sponsored by the Brown Institute at Columbia and Stanford ( and Patient Rights Advocate (