Five ways to get more from your doctor: UNC researchers' tips for patients

These days, going to the doctor may seem more like speed dating than care giving. Patients get a few minutes with the clinician, and he or she does most of the talking.

How can a person get the information they need and the outcome they desire in a 15-minute office visit? What if the treatment options don’t feel right? Is it too much for a patient to feel they are considered a partner in their own well-being?

Often, people leave their doctor’s office with more questions than answers, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine who are looking at how patients can get more of what they need from the health-care system. They have found that patients (or their advocates) who talk to physicians about their beliefs, values, lifestyle and concerns can get better results from their health-care experience.

“Research shows if you ask doctors what they think is important to patients, and then ask patients what’s important to them, there’s not a great match,” said Dr. Michael Pignone, chief of the UNC division of general internal medicine.

But, as smart as doctors are, they aren’t mind readers, Pignone and his colleagues note.

“A common problem is patients thinking that their physician will know how they – the patient – feels about specific decisions” said Dr. Carmen Lewis, assistant professor of medicine of general internal medicine and clinical epidemiology. “Doctors don’t – you need to tell them. People feel the doctor is the expert, but the individual is the expert about his or her lifestyle and how he or she values options and outcomes.”

Pignone offered some tips for becoming what he calls a “pleasantly assertive” patient, so that patients’ health-care providers can better help them.

  1. Prepare for your visit. “It might seem silly, but it’s really helpful to write down your symptoms, complaint or problem, then summarize it into a couple of sentences,” Pignone said. “Bring your list and your summary with you to the visit. This allows the doctor to quickly review your condition and ask specific questions, instead of spending time focused on general issues. This one step can make visits 25 percent to 50 percent more effective.”
  2. Have an agenda. “Before your appointment, decide what you want from the visit,” Pignone recommends. “For instance, if you’re suffering back pain, you might want to know what is causing the pain as well as a treatment plan for getting better. Make sure you share that with your doctor at the very beginning of your visit. It might feel funny at first, but your doctor will appreciate it. Sharing this information will help you all make better decisions about treatment, make the visit more efficient, and improve the chance that your health-care needs will be met effectively.”
  3. Know your medical history and medications. “To help you get the treatment you need, doctors need to know what tests you’ve had – and when – as well as what medications you’re taking,” Pignone said. “Without that information, they might mistakenly re-order tests or prescribe medication that has a bad interaction with something you’re already taking. That can have adverse effects for your health and your wallet.”
  4. Tell your provider about your values or lifestyle preferences that could affect your treatment. “It doesn’t make sense to agree to a treatment plan you know you won’t follow – it won’t result in your feeling better,” Pignone cautioned. “For example, if a Wednesday night smoking cessation class conflicts with your book club, it’s not going to be an effective intervention for you. On a more serious level, if you don’t want to deal with the uncertainty of a possible recurrence of cancer, you might prefer a mastectomy to a lumpectomy. Similarly, if you can’t afford medication or to take off work for recurring visits, tell your provider even if you’re embarrassed. There are often ways to work around the challenges if your care team knows about them.”
  5. Clarify the decision to be made. “Sometimes you’re offered several options, so be sure you understand the alternatives and if you don’t, ask for clarification,” Pignone said. “Your doctor should be able to give you important details about each option either during the visit, or on a follow-up call. In addition to the details, ask them how good the medical information is.”

Pignone and Lewis acknowledged that this approach results in a very different doctor-patient relationship, but evidence shows that proactive patients tend to get more effective and efficient care.

“The sicker you are, the more this matters,” Pignone said. “But it’s harder to do. If you’re not comfortable interacting this way, involve other people who support you in your life to come with you and play this role.”

Note: Pignone can be contacted through Evan Sloan at, (919) 966-2276, ext 234. Lewis can be reached at (919) 966-2276 or

School of Medicine contacts: Les Lang, (919) 966-9366, or Stephanie Crayton, (919) 966-2860,
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596,

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