Dr Clare Bailey: How to get the most out of your family doctor

Welcome to my new YOU column. Over the coming weeks I will be tackling some of the health issues that concern you most. But first, some advice from my 30 years as a GP. We do our utmost to help patients, but we can do even better if you help us, too – so here’s how to get the very best out of your family doctor…

Before making an appointment

ASK YOURSELF IF YOU NEED A GP Is it something the nurse practitioner or pharmacist could deal with? Do you need to see a specific doctor? For an ongoing complex condition, it often helps to see the same person, but for less complicated – or more urgent – problems, see whoever is available.
GET YOUR THOUGHTS IN ORDER GP appointment times in the UK are among the shortest in the world, an average of just nine minutes and 22 seconds. It’s easy to get muddled, so write down your concerns – a maximum of three – in advance. That way you won’t waste time talking about your corns and only mention the chest pain as you’re about to leave.
GOOGLE YOUR SYMPTOMS Don’t apologise for researching possible diagnoses or treatments – your doctor probably consults Dr Google, too (I often do). NHS Choices (nhs.uk) also has excellent online advice. The better informed you are, the more you can take control of your health.
MAKE THE RECEPTIONIST YOUR ALLY They can get you to the right place, whether that’s a form that needs signing, a routine checkup with a nurse or an urgent consultation with a doctor.
USE ONLINE ACCESS Make appointments and check your results online. Doctors deal with hundreds of results a day, so they will not call you unless it’s urgent.

At the surgery

BE BRIEF AND SPECIFIC GPs see 30 to 40 patients a day and won’t automatically remember your full history without spending half the consultation browsing your notes, so a quick precis is appreciated. (Don’t just say, ‘It’s come back again…’) Explaining your main concerns straight away leaves more time to address them. We also need to know how many days, weeks or months you have been experiencing symptoms, not just ‘for quite a long time now’ or ‘probably since I came back from holiday’.
KNOW THE OUTCOME YOU WANT Tell us if you’re seeking investigation, treatment or reassurance, so that we know what you expect from the appointment. For example, you might say, ‘I’m worried about a lump and wondered if I need a scan.’ This will help us to understand and address your real concerns (have I got cancer? Is this an STD or thrush?).
BE HONEST It’s important that you tell us about awkward symptoms, embarrassing histories or the medication you have stopped taking, so that we can give you the appropriate treatment.
ASK QUESTIONS If you aren’t clear about what your doctor is saying, ask them to repeat or clarify it. Bring someone with you for moral support and to be an extra pair of ears. If you need more information, ask for printed summaries, resources and websites.
SWITCH YOUR PHONE TO SILENT We haven’t got time for you to field calls mid-consultation. We understand that your kids may need distracting, but please set their phone on low volume so that we don’t struggle to detect subtle heart sounds.

My one-minute health tip

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Meditation isn’t all weird chanting and trying to ‘empty your mind’. I recently went to a session aimed at supporting stressed healthcare professionals (of whom there are many) and found it really helpful. Meditating, even for as little as a minute a day, can improve focus and performance, and ease stress. I often recommend it to reduce anxiety and calm an over-busy mind. And research shows that, for recurrent depression, it’s at least as effective as medication for preventing relapse. Visit Oxford Mindfulness Centre or download the Headspace app, which offers a free ten-minute taster session.

If you have a question you would like answering, email drclarebailey@you.co.uk