Annual Physical Tips: 4 Ways to Make the Most of Your Appointment

Use these important tactics to maximize your next visit to the doctor.

January 14, 2014


You keep a careful eye on your budget, credit cards, and checkbook, so why not apply the same due diligence to something more important than money: your health?


"You wouldn't go into a meeting with your financial advisor without knowing your assets and liabilities and gathering copies of tax returns from the last few years," says Florence Comite, MD, author of Keep It Up: Your Health, Your Body, Your Energy, Your Strength. She advises her patients to take charge of their physical health with the same tenacity and detail as they do their personal finances.

It all starts with preparing for a doctor's appointment the way you might for a visit to your accountant, in order to avoid wasting precious time. After all, the average checkup with a primary care physician lasts just 17 minutes, according to a study from Health Services Research Journal. That's less time than it takes to order takeout pizza! You can get more value from doctor face time by doing homework before you arrive. Dr. Comite suggests following these four steps of pre-visit preparation to help your doctor make a more thorough assessment of your health profile.

Step 1: Track and Record Health Changes

Reflect on how you've been feeling, take detailed notes, and bring questions. The more specific you can be with your health record keeping, the clearer your picture of health will be when you present it to your doctor. "Don't write off alterations you feel in your body as no big deal," says Dr. Comite. "Be as attuned to minute observations as you would to the balance in your checking account, and bring up your concerns to your doctor."

Knowing how your health has changed is crucial information that your doctor wouldn't know if you didn't tell him or her. Important tip: During the first few minutes of your checkup, tell your doctor about your list of questions to ensure that he or she will leave enough time to go through them with you. Read from your notes; don't assume that you'll remember everything you want to talk about without referring to your "homework."

Step 2: Come Prepared with a Complete List of Medications and Dosages

Even if you have seen the same doctor for years, you still should take stock of what you're taking and why. "Know the pills you're taking, what side effects you've experienced, and how you feel after taking them. You know better than your doctor what it feels like to live in your body," Dr. Comite says.

Providing a complete list gives your doctor not only the medications he or she has prescribed you, but also medications prescribed to you by other doctors or specialists you may be seeing. Also include any vitamins or supplements you're taking. What you think may be a simple preventative pill could have dangerous interactions with another medication, or you may be taking the wrong dose.

Step 3: Update Your Family Health History

The secret to what your health will look like in the future is locked away in your DNA. But that doesn't mean you need expensive genetic testing. "Collecting a family history is the 'poor man's' version of a genetic test, but it provides a treasure trove of information that helps save lives," Dr. Comite says.

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To get started, write down medical issues that your blood relatives have dealt with, keeping track of which family members and how many of them were affected. Look both linearly (grandparent, parent, you) and laterally (siblings, cousins). "This helps the doctor develop a profile of what medical issues you might inherit that may not have manifested in your day-to-day health," Dr. Comite explains.  

Step 4: Collect the Dates of Any Diagnostic Tests You Have Had

When was the last time you had a blood test? If the answer is "I don't know," you might want to check in with your doctor to see if you're due. Outdated diagnostic tests skew the baseline information that your doctor uses to create your health profile. If you had the test taken at a different office, you can get a copy of the record for your current physician. Even if you're checking up with the doctor who performed the test, it's still smart to ask because it may get overlooked if your doctor has limited time to spend with you. Remember to take charge. Be proactive. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Some tests you may want to ask about:

  • Fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin, hemoglobin A1C—to check for diabetes
  • Urinanalysis (uric acid test)—to assess liver and kidney function
  • Total cholesterol; HDL and LDL cholesterol; tryglcerides; cardio-CRP—for heart health
  • Complete blood count (CBC)—for immune system function and nutrient deficiencies
  • Bone density, body composition—to check for osteoporosis and body fat percentage

For more ways to stay healthy, read Hold the Prescription! Consider Natural Remedies for These Ailments.