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Make the Most of Your Time at the Doctor's Office

It may be the doctor’s office, but you’re more in control of your care than you might think. You only get about 20 minutes with your M.D., according to The American Journal of Managed Care, so make the most of the time you have together. These tiny tweaks can yield big results in managing your wellbeing and making smarter health care decisions. (Start by reviewing these 3 Doctor's Orders You Should Question.)

Use the Electronic Portal
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About 78 percent of office-based physicians have an electronic health record system now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Through this portal, you can ask your doc questions, like if your symptoms are bad enough to warrant an appointment. “Doctors aren’t just there to obtain lab results and request prescription refills,” Ejnes says, adding they are there for your health concerns even outside the office.

Find out if your M.D. offers this by calling his office. If there’s a particular issue or symptom you’d like to discuss during your appointment, letting him know through the portal can help him prepare to discuss it and line up any tests you may need to have during the same visit.

Schedule an Early Appointment
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This is especially true if you have any cold-like symptoms. Primary care doctors are 26 percent more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics near the end of their shift compared to earlier in the day, according to researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Taking antibiotics when they're not needed increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and can cause diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections, the study adds. Docs get tired as the day wears on, which can lead them to take the easy way out when patients request unwarranted meds, the study authors say. If you can’t score an a.m. appointment, ask if you really need that script. (This is important, especially if you have one of these 7 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore.)

Arrive Early
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There’s more at stake than losing your appointment when you race against the clock. “Rushing into the exam room with a full bladder, sitting on the exam table with your legs dangling and crossed, and talking to your doctor or nurse while having your blood pressure checked can account for as much as a 10-point spike in your reading,” Ejnes says. This could put mess with your blood pressure category and lead to unnecessary tests and treatments.

For an accurate blood pressure reading, give yourself a few minutes to decompress in the waiting room, empty your bladder before your appointment, and sit quietly with your back against a chair and your feet flat on the floor while donning the cuff.

Skip Caffeine
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Your morning java may spike your BP, too, which can result in an inaccurate reading, Ejnes adds. If you’re having your blood sugar checked, you should also forgo your morning jolt, since it can temporarily boost your blood sugar levels and decrease your insulin sensitivity, even if you regularly drink the stuff. This, in turn, could make you appear diabetic even if you’re not, according to a study in Diabetes Care. Your best bet: Skip caffeine until after your appointment is over (more incentive to schedule it for early in the day!).

Hand Over Your List
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Arriving armed with a list of questions or symptoms is one of the best ways to maximize those 20 minutes you have with your doctor. But don’t keep it to yourself: “It’s helpful to have your doctor look at your list because he or she can help you prioritize what’s most important to discuss during the time you have together,” says Yul Ejnes, M.D., an internal medicine physician in Rhode Island and past chair of the American College of Physicians Board of Regents.

“Sometimes something at the bottom may seem trivial to you, but it could actually be something very serious.” For instance, experiencing heartburn when carrying groceries could indicate a heart problem, or if you have very heavy or long periods, it could be a sign of conditions like endometrial cancer. If your doc doesn’t ask to look at your list, ask if you can show it to them, he adds.

Fess Up on Bad Habits
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This includes smoking, binge drinking, drugs, and anything else you know isn’t good for you. “Even casual use of these things might interact with medications, so your doctor needs to know in order to avoid dangerous side effects,” Ejnes says.

Forty-two percent of people who drink also take medications that can interact with alcohol, according to a recent study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. And smoking while taking birth control pills can increase your risk of stroke and heart attack, according to the FDA. While you may not want to admit your worst habits, your doctor can recommend alternative meds that won’t put your health at risk. (See, 6 Things You're Not Telling Your Doc But Should.)

Ask About Alternative Treatments
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Need surgery? Ask if there’s a minimally invasive option. “Doctors prefer the technique they’re most familiar with,” Ejnes says. It makes sense, of course, but that doesn’t mean the method your surgeon offers is the only one available, so be sure to ask.

In many instances, a minimally invasive approach—where the surgeon performs the procedure through tiny incisions—may be available. This technique isn’t always better than traditional open surgery, but it’s worth investigating because it may decrease scarring, shorten your hospital stay, and lead to quicker recovery. This is especially true when it comes to gynecological procedures for conditions like fibroids or endometriosis, where minimally invasive options may spare you from needing a hysterectomy and preserve your fertility, suggests the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Schedule Your Next Appointment Before You Leave
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Sure, you have a crazy schedule, and who knows if you’ll be available at 10 a.m. a few months from now. But you should get your next visit on the books before you walk out the door, especially if your doctor recommends a follow-up.

Nationwide, patients have to wait about 18.5 days for an appointment once they call—not cool if your doctor wants to see you in two weeks and you delay setting it up. And this is a conservative estimate. Wait times can be as long as 72 days to see a dermatologist (Boston), 26 days to see a family physician (New York), and 24 days to see a specialist such as a cardiologist, dermatologist, or ob-gyn (Denver), according to a survey by leading physician search and consulting firm Merritt Hawkins.

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