Prepare: Seven vital steps to making the most of time with your doctor and an easy way to remember them
22:27 GMT, 24 March 2012
When you go to see your GP, you have about ten minutes to tell him or her what’s wrong, for them to understand that, make a diagnosis (if one hasn’t been made) and decide on a course of action. Add to that mix first-time nerves, a doctor you may not know and that feeling of your mind going blank under pressure, and often an appointment can be wasted.
Is this a huge problem Well, we GPs are often anecdotally criticised for missing serious diseases, such as cancer, or dismissing them as something far more common. And the Department of Health estimates that 10,000 deaths a years could be avoided if cancers were diagnosed earlier.
Of course, the responsibility for this lies with the doctor and we need to do better. But as a patient, there are things you can do to maximise your time with your doctor with a few simple steps.
For a start, take advantage of any screening programmes available. Thousands of lives are saved annually with the free tests offered for bowel, breast and cervical cancers. Make sure you are registered with your local GP so that the surgery can invite you to a relevant test.
It is also worth knowing signs of common diseases to be concerned about.
And I’ve devised a simple mnemonic to help patients. PREPARE stands for Plan, Research, Explain, Prioritise, Ask questions, Return and Explore. Follow these seven steps and you should get the maximum from your visit.
When you go to see your doctor, think about your consultation. Write down any questions you may have and jot down your key symptoms, when they occur and how long you’ve been suffering from them, as well as any medication or treatments you may be taking.
RESEARCH YOUR SYMPTOMS
Google isn’t a diagnostic tool but it’s a valuable source of information and I will always take on board a patient’s own theories. Your gut instinct can be a powerful indicator of what is wrong, and often people are right. But try not to come to any conclusions before seeing your doctor. Your computer is useful – but it can’t see you and it doesn’t know your medical history. Type in a list of symptoms and the worst-case scenario always comes up as cancer, which is relatively rare, and this can cause unnecessary anxiety.
EXPLAIN WHAT IS HAPPENING
Tell your GP your story. We call this the ‘history of the presenting complaint’. Think about when you last felt well and what has happened since then. Incredibly, about 80 per cent of diagnoses are made using this information alone. The examination by your doctor and subsequent tests are responsible for identifying only the other 20 per cent. Help your doctor do the detective work.
Many people only have ten minutes to explain to their GP exactly what is wrong, so be sure to make the most of your time
PRIORITISE YOUR PROBLEMS
As I have said, most GP appointments last only ten minutes. No doctor should rush you along, but if there is something that really concerns you, say it first, even if it’s embarrassing. Your doctor won’t be embarrassed in the least because the chances are we’ve seen it many times before. Ideally, focus on one complaint per appointment.
ASK QUESTIONS . . .
. . . and share any concerns. If a friend or family member has had similar symptoms or you’re worried about something you have read in a newspaper or seen on television, just ask. Either it will give your doctor more clues as to the problem, or they may be able to put your mind at ease.
RETURN . . .
. . . if things don’t improve. If you have persisting symptoms and they don’t improve, don’t ignore them. They may evolve and a diagnosis will become clearer over time.
Don’t ever feel you are being a bother. Try to see the same doctor on a return visit for the same complaint. This helps to build up a full picture of what is happening. The GP may be able to give you a timeframe as to how long symptoms should – or shouldn’t – last.
EXPLORE OTHER OPTIONS
If you are unhappy with any explanation, it’s fine to challenge your GP. Ask them what else it could be or to rationalise their diagnosis. If they don’t think your headaches are down to a brain tumour, then they should be able to explain exactly why.
If you remain unconvinced, you can ask for a second opinion. I often suggest my patients make an appointment with another member of the practice team who may have a speciality in a certain area. And if you have lost confidence in your practice, then it is easy to change GPs.
Following these simple rules means that you give yourself and your doctor the best chance of getting the diagnosis right the first time and reduce any delay in treatment.