How to get the most from your GP visit
Maximising your time with your doctor can bring real health benefits.
Have you ever left a GP appointment feeling you didn’t tackle your issue head-on? Or that you were rushed? Or that your doctor simply doesn’t know you?
Australian Medical Association (AMA) vice-president, Dr Tony Bartone, explains how to make your time count and how to get the best out of your GP relationship.
Is it better to forge a relationship with one GP as opposed to doctors at different medical centres?
"There’s recent evidence in the British Medical Journal that shows continuous care by the same doctor is associated with less complications and hospitalisations. For the average 20 to 30 year old, it’s probably not going to make an immediate difference but you’re missing out on building a body of knowledge with your doctor that you can take in to your 40s, 50s and 60s – and the older you get the more chronic conditions you develop.
"For example, your doctor may be able to tell from the way you walk in to the room or sit in the chair that something is wrong, and that it might be the first presentation of depression or confusion.
"There are subtle cues of non-verbal communication that are an essential part of the doctor-patient relationship. With revolving doctors, you’re starting the conversation anew every time you walk in."
How important is it to be honest with your doctor about lifestyle habits like smoking, alcohol and drug use?
"The short answer is that you hide information at your peril. Your doctor is not getting vital information because you’re censoring important things.
"For example, if you drink six glasses of alcohol a day and say you drink two, that’s significant. If you drink three and say you only drink two it’s probably not much in terms of immediate harm, but down the track it’ll build.
"If you then have an abnormal liver function test, your doctor may think it’s not the alcohol because you’ve said you don’t drink much, so they look for other things. It defeats the purpose of having a relationship with your doctor."
Are people reluctant to admit drug use for fear of legal repercussions?
"People should understand everything they tell their doctor is confidential. We see patients all the time who admit to taking illicit drugs. We don’t play judge and jury although we certainly try and direct them to get help. But you’re not going to get handcuffed and led away by the constabulary.
"If, however, we’re aware of child abuse or where members of the public are in danger, we have to report those incidences."
How important is it to get straight to the point about why you’ve come to see your doctor?
"All doctors have examples of having spent 15 minutes with someone and, just as they’re leaving, say they’ve found a lump in their breast or blood in their stool, or they feel life isn’t worth living anymore. These sorts of things require immediate and significant attention and you can’t let the person walk out the door.
"If you have a list of things to discuss, let your doctor know and they can figure out what to prioritise. Anything that allows us to get to the crux of the matter is beneficial to all. It’s also a courtesy to other patients who are waiting."
What do people go to GPs for that they shouldn’t?
"That’s a difficult one because I’d rather people saw me for things that may be frivolous in the end. There’s a whole raft of reasons you should go and see your GP. As much as illness, we’re also about prevention and lifestyle change and management. The opportunity to instruct, educate, explore and advise is always important."
What sort of issues may require a longer appointment?
"It varies between doctors but the standard Medicare consultation is typically up to 20 minutes. After that you’re generally into a longer appointment. According to the latest studies, the average consultation is around currently 14-16 minutes.
"If you have a number of conditions, forms need filling in, or there’s a fair degree of counselling involved, a longer appointment is usually required. A blood pressure check and a repeat prescription will be a standard visit. If you’re not sure, enquire when you make the appointment."
How do doctors feel about Dr Google?
"Up until recently it’s been a mixture of information of dubious quality, which could easily send you up the garden path with the most esoteric diagnoses or unlikely probabilities. Now, though, with the release of Google Health Cards, you can at least access quality information. But at the end of the day that’s all it is – information. It’s not a diagnosis and shouldn’t be used as such."
What should people do if they don’t agree with their doctor or feel uncomfortable with treatment?
"First of all, make sure you understand exactly what’s been said and if you still feel it’s not applicable, discuss that with your doctor before you leave. We’re not ogres who feel if our diagnosis is questioned then we show you the door. It may point to the fact we’ve had a communication issue. If that continues, you need to ask yourself if you need a different doctor."
What else would you like people to know?
"Make sure you understand the management plan at the end of the consultation and also the expectation of what you will follow up on. Doctors can only go so far. We can show you the way to better health but you’ve got to do the yards – for example if you need to improve your diet and exercise more. If you come back knowing you’ve done everything in your power, your doctor can more easily determine if a follow-up investigation is needed.
"Understand that your role is important in the here and now and also in the future. This improves the relationship so when the chips are down, the empathy, understanding and support that is your GP can really shine through."