Questions for your GP

Health correspondent / 13 October 2016 ( 05 November 2015 )

Telling your GP why you have come and giving the key facts fast will help make the most of your eight minutes

Telling your GP why you have come and giving the key facts fast will help make the most of your eight minutes.

How do you make the most of your appointment? And what are the questions that will produce the answers you need? We asked the experts.

The average GP’s appointment lasts 10 minutes. Allowing time for one patient to leave, for the doctor to write up their notes and for you to walk in, that knocks off a couple of minutes. So now you have eight minutes with your GP, and you want to make every one count. Where do you start?

‘A key question is one you ask yourself before you go to the surgery,’ says Dr Catti Moss. ‘You need to ask “Why am I going?” and “What do I want from this visit?” Nearly all the cases where patients fail to get information happen because the patient didn’t think about what they wanted.’

Tell your doctor directly

Dr Mark Porter, GP, health writer and TV and radio presenter, agrees. ‘You need to be crystal clear about why you’re there, so get straight to the point, as you don’t have long. Come out with the key facts of your health story – doctors call it your history – write them down if you need to, and explain all of it right at the beginning. But make sure you stick to the facts. Don’t manipulate them to fit what you think is wrong with you.’

There’s a good reason for giving your doctor what could seem like an information overload in your first minute together. What may appear to be three or four separate things could all be part of one condition, or there could be one unrelated element, while the other symptoms are connected. 

Giving your GP all this information in one go will help them make their diagnosis, and control how the time goes. ‘Hand your list of symptoms to your doctor if you want to,’ says Dr Moss. ‘They’ll be able to read them more quickly than you can say them.’ But it helps to know your doctor – not all GPs appreciate this approach.

‘Your doctor may well ask you what you think is wrong with you,’ says Dr Porter. ‘I always do this with my patients. If you have a particular concern, bring it out at the beginning. That way your doctor will know what you’re worried about. This is really important, because often the story a patient tells their doctor, and what they’re worried about bear no relation to each other. So the doctor can go through their diagnosis, but may not allay your specific worry.’ 

Don’t let fear of what your GP may tell you hold you back. Your fears may be unfounded, and if they’re not, the sooner you get treatment, the better.

It helps to go further and to be specific in your own mind about your expectations. ‘Ask yourself what you want your doctor to do,’ Says Dr Moss. ‘Do I want him to arrange tests, refer me to a specialist or examine me and put my mind at rest? Bad consultations are nearly always bad because the GP didn’t find out why the patient came to see them. If you really want to see a specialist, be courageous enough to say so upfront.’

Ask questions for a correct diagnosis - and take notes

You’ve done your part and given your GP the information he or she needs to start making a diagnosis. And that’s the time to start asking questions, but not until you’ve armed yourself with a vital piece of equipment. 

‘Take a notebook with you and write down what you hear,’ says Vanessa Bourne, previously Head of Special Projects at the Patients’ Association. ‘It’s well known that we forget around 50% of what we hear after we come out of the doctor’s surgery. So take notes, and ask questions. The more relevant questions you ask, the more likely you are to get an accurate diagnosis.’

A good question to start with is ‘What’s going to happen from here?’ The answer will give you an idea of how the investigation into your health concerns will proceed. Your doctor may be able to give you a framework of what you can expect, such as tests, followed by results, and depending on those, treatment, further tests or referral to a specialist.

If this information isn’t forthcoming, ask ‘What are the next stages?’ and ‘When will they happen?’ It’s also important to ask ‘When will I know that something isn’t happening?’ 

‘People can wait for months for an appointment, or for the results of tests, and find that they’ve been lost in the system,’ explains Vanessa Bourne. Having an idea of how long the next stage should take means that you’ll know if it isn’t running to plan.

‘If your GP refers you for tests, ask what they’re for,’ says Dr Porter. ‘You should find out what the doctor is looking for, so you understand what’s going on.’ And if you don’t understand, ask your GP to explain it again.

Questions for your GP

  • What do you think the problem is?
  • Is there anything else it could be?
  • What are the tests for?
  • How and when will I find out my test results?
  • What will the test results tell me?
  • What treatment will I be given?
  • Are there any other treatments?
  • How long will the treatment go on for?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • How can I tell if the treatment is working?
  • What would happen if I don’t take it, or stop taking it?
  • What should I do if I feel worse?
  • How can I find out more about my problem?
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