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In the Doctor’s Office

A few things are helpful to know and prepare for when you go to the doctor’s office. You need to share important information about yourself and your symptoms, and there are specific questions to ask depending on your illness, your level of independence, and your life in general.

Below you will find helpful suggestions for:

The information will serve as a starting point as you prepare for your office visits and your discussions with your medical team and family. Be sure that your questions have been answered. Individuals living with serious illness are often hesitant to ask too many questions about their illness, its treatment and expectations for recovery or wellness – there is often a fear of getting a “negative response or bad news.” This is understandable and not uncommon. Be sure your need for information has been satisfied.

If you receive an unexpected serious diagnosis from a medical provider, you may be in shock and disbelief. It may take time to comprehend and accept the new reality. For many, the details of the information given by the doctor may be not fully heard or remembered. Consider scheduling a follow-up visit. Be sure to bring a friend or family member with you, and follow the suggestions below.

Preparing for your Office Visit

The following is a list of items (adapted from the Mayo Clinic website) to think about before you go to your doctor’s appointment (download/print a copy):

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there’s anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down any symptoms you are experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment. Note when your symptoms began.
  • Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications that you are taking, including any vitamins or supplements.
  • Gather your medical records. If you have had a chest X-ray or a scan done by a different doctor, try to obtain that file and bring it to your appointment.
  • Bring a copy of your New York State Health Care Proxy to your appointment and ask that it be added to your medical file.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.
  • Bring a pad so you can write down the answers that your doctor provides.
  • Consider taking a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.

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Telling the Doctor about Yourself

Your physician will be asking you a lot of questions about you and your symptoms, and will offer information about your diagnosis.

Before you start discussing treatments and side effects with your doctor, it is important that you understand your diagnosis well, and that the doctor knows your overall goals for your life, your priorities during treatment, and what worries you most.  This document can help you start that conversation.

The discussion with your physician will be better if you share how much information you want to receive and when you want to receive it. Sometimes getting too much information can be as bad as not getting enough.

Think about what you want to know before you visit with your physician. Even if you are not asked, it is a good idea to give him or her your answers to the following questions:

  • Do you like to know all information – good and bad?
  • Do you like to have information in advance so you know what might happen, or do you want to wait to deal with changes if and when they happen?
  • How much information do you want about your prognosis (life expectancy)?
  • Do you want to know the specifics of how you are going to be cared for?
  • How much information do you want about the medications that will be used to keep you comfortable or to treat your illness?
  • Do you want to know the average success rate of your treatment (percentages)?

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Telling the Doctor about your Symptoms

At the start of the office visit, your physician may ask you how you’re feeling. Like many people, perhaps you answer that you are fine, no matter how you are really feeling. If you begin with a positive answer, take the time to follow up with your concerns: But I have a few things I wanted to ask you about – I have pain and nausea, and I feel so tired.

It is not unusual to have symptoms associated with your illness or its treatments. It is important to tell your doctor about all of them. Remember to mention how you think they affect your functioning both physically and mentally as well as how they affect your quality of life. Do not assume that you will be asked about any of your specific symptoms. Let your doctor know if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Depression – feeling sad or blue
  • Cough
  • Constipation
  • Anxiety – nervousness or restlessness
  • Fatigue – decreased energy without being sleepy
  • Lack of general well being or comfort
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain

If attempts to treat your symptoms have been less than successful, ask your physician if a specialist could help. A palliative care specialist can be consulted specifically for symptom management. You can also ask about palliative care services in your home through a Certified Home Health Agency (CHHA). Learn more in the Living with Serious Illness/Palliative Care section of The Guide.

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Asking Questions about your Diagnosis and Treatments

It is important, as part of your conversation with your physician, that you get specific information, including:

  • an understanding of how the illness may affect your day to day functioning and life
  • your treatment options and what to expect from the treatment
  • what potential side effects from the treatment may occur and when
  • what symptoms may occur from the illness and when
  • your prognosis with or without treatment

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Questions specific to cancer patients (from Cancer Support Team).

Other Questions & Answers about diagnosis and treatments. Please send questions that you think may be of interest to others to info@livewithcare.org.

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