Talking to Your Doctor: Do I Need to Make that Appointment?

Jane had what she later described to her friend as an “awkward” meeting with her physician today. And one that left her thinking about how to make the best use of her doctor’s time – and her own time – in the future.


Jane had met with her physician a couple of weeks earlier, and she had added a new medication to Jane’s regimen, after Jane had mentioned some new symptoms. As Jane was getting ready to leave her doctor’s office that day, her doctor had said to Jane, “we’ll see how the medication is working in a couple of weeks.” Jane had called that afternoon from home and made her next appointment.


Today, her physician had walked into the examining room and said: “What are you doing here?”


Her doctor had smiled when she said this, but Jane was still surprised at the question.


“I thought you wanted me to come in to see you again in two weeks,” Jane answered. “Isn’t that what you said?” Jane was feeling a little defensive at this point.


“Oh, I understand,” her doctor said. “I didn’t mean we needed to meet so soon.” Jane’s doctor also said: “I am super busy and it can be hard for patients who need to see me to get an appointment. And I am working with the insurance companies to avoid unnecessary appointments, which benefits everybody. I know you are busy person, too. So I’ll do my part in the future to communicate better.”


“Got it,” Jane had answered. But she was also questioning whether she had wasted her doctor’s time. Jane had been concerned about her symptoms and, while the medication did seem to be helping, she had wanted to “touch base” and, she admitted to herself, hear some reassuring words from her doctor.


“Not that it’s not always nice to see you, Jane,” her doctor had said reassuringly.


They made sure it was clear to both of them when they would be meeting again.


As Jane was recounting this meeting to her friend, she thought about her doctor’s words. “With my chronic condition, I feel like I see my doctor so often we are like friends,” she confided to her friend. “And now I’m about times like today when I am looking for reassurance and support. Is that a valid reason for making an appointment? On the other hand, I don’t want to risk not going in if I need to. Sometimes I’m not sure how to tell the difference.”


What about you? Have you ever felt unsure as to whether or not you should get in touch with your doctor? Have you ever decided to “tough it out” when you shouldn’t have? Or made an appointment when, like Jane, you wanted some reassurance and support?”


Here are some guidelines to help you answer that question:


Question your own motives. Before you make an appointment, take a step back and ask yourself what you are hoping to accomplish. Do you have a specific medical complaint that needs your doctor’s attention? Do you have questions and want your doctor’s input? Are you feeling you need to have a “check in” with your doctor? In other words, if you “need” to see your doctor, define that need for yourself.


Question that need for a “check in.” Sure, sitting down and talking with your physician, even for a few minutes, can help on those days when your chronic condition is giving you a rough time. And it’s nice to have some reassurance that you are doing everything right in managing your self-care. But ask yourself: do you need your doctor’s input or would it be a “nice to have” during a rocky time? If getting together with your doctor would, in your heart of hearts, be nice to have, then maybe that’s a sign that what you’re looking for is not medical advice but the emotional support of someone you trust. We all need reassurance. And it’s only human to reach out to someone you can count on, like your doctor. But emotional support is not your doctor’s primary responsibility.


Ask yourself: How urgent is my need? This can be a tricky question, and one that is not without risks. If you have felt this way before, and the symptoms were resolved without medical attention, then you may feel comfortable waiting before scheduling an appointment. If the symptoms are more acute, or especially uncomfortable, or interfering with your ability to do what you need to do every day, then you may not want to wait.


Consider alternatives to making an appointment. You may have only one way to get answers, and that is through meeting with your physician in his/her examination room. But consider whether other alternatives might be more appropriate.


Talk to your doctor’s support staff.   Is there a nurse or a physician’s assistant you could have a brief chat with first? He/she may be able to give you an answer to your question, as well as help you to determine whether you need to meet with your doctor.


Also consider email. Can you send an email to your doctor? If your doctor is open to email communication, you might be able to get an answer to your question this way. Assuming your doctor is also responsive to email. Depending on the level of discomfort that your symptoms are causing, email may not be recommended.


Clarify next steps before you leave your doctor’s office. As Jane discovered, casual comments like “touch base” or “let us know” may not be interpreted as intended. So it’s always a good idea to be clear with your doctor on what he/she expects in terms of any needed follow-up. It’s also a good idea to repeat back what you heard, to make sure you are both in sync, as well as to write it down.


Work with your doctor on when to reach out. A good reason to talk with your doctor is to get clear directions – as much as this is possible – on when you should call and make an appointment. Ask for guidelines regarding how to distinguish between symptoms that are within the normal range and symptoms that are not. Understand how your physician wants to monitor your condition, including frequency of check-ups. Having this discussion can go a long way toward helping you to make that “should I or shouldn’t I” decision.


Have a support network in place. On those days when you need to sit down with someone who is willing to offer a listening ear and a kind heart, reach out to someone in your support network: a friend or a family member. Also, consider getting connected with a mental health professional, who can provide you with emotional support as well as help to develop some new ways of coping with the emotional demands of living with a chronic condition.


You and your doctor. Be clear with each other on why, and when, you should make an appointment. Be clear with yourself on why you’re calling before you make the call. Use your doctor’s time wisely, as well as your own. And take good care of yourself!