In the U.S., the average primary care visit lasts less than 15 minutes. Time is money to large physician networks, whose employers often set doctors daily patient quotas at 16 or more, so that they churn through as many patients as possible.
Often, 15 minutes just isn’t enough. Not only that, much of this time is spent with the doctor facing a computer, as they are charged with keeping extensive electronic health records on patients’ conditions to make misdiagnoses, unnecessary drug prescriptions, and other medical errors less likely.
Unfortunately, these impersonal, fleeting interactions create more margin for error. Experts have named short visits a risk factor for inappropriate prescribing and disease management. In any case, evidence suggests that these short time-crunches leads doctors to feel burned out, which undermines the quality of care they provide.
Physician burnout is just 1 of many contributions to an epidemic that’s made medical malpractice the nation’s third leading cause of death. Common types of doctor error – which include hospital-acquired infections, inadequate follow-up, and delay in treatment – share other time-related root causes like communication problems and incomplete patient assessment.
All things considered, the 15-minute limit is putting patients’ health at risk. To avoid becoming the next victim of medical malpractice, you’ll need to take proactive steps to make every minute count.
1.) Plan Your Visit
The surest way to avoid disappointment or frustration about wasted time is to plan ahead. Mary Talen, Ph.D., director of primary-care behavioral health education at Northwestern University, suggests writing down everything you want to talk about ahead of time. If you think you’ll need more time than usual, say so when scheduling.
Even better, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., of Consumer Reports: Prioritize your needs in order of urgency. Raise your most pressing health concern first, as this will likely be the 1 on which your doctor spends most of the visit.
It’s all the more important to plan ahead if you have a complex health condition that requires the attention of an M.D. like Lipman. Primary care doctors are in short supply as well as strapped for time. If you’re lucky enough to find a doctor accepting new patients, you could face a wait as long as 29 days.
2.) Take Notes (and Ask Questions)
Doctors sometimes struggle to break down complex medical jargon into layman’s terms; medicine labels and dosage instructions can be confusing. But understanding your condition and how to measure drug intake is critical. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, but note down anything you’re still unclear on to look up later.
Try to ask pointed questions to ensure the doctor is giving your problem serious thought. For example, if the doctor says your fatigue signals depression, ask, “Why do you think that?” or “Is there anything else it could be?” He or she should always be able to reason how symptoms align with possible conditions. More importantly, your doctor should document a formal diagnosis when necessary. Ensure you are clear on next steps, whether further tests or a referral, before leaving the office.
3.) Bring a Buddy
While on the subject of what to bring, a trusted family member or friend can be an important form of support. Acting as mediator, they can help protect your best interests, raise important questions you hadn’t thought of, or simply take notes for you.
If you can’t bring someone, look to others in your care team. Communication may not be your own doctor’s strong point, but it may come easily to specialists, nurses, and others in the practice. You’d be surprised how many staff members are trained to talk about your health concerns, and as Talen points out, others may also have more time on their hands.
4.) Bring Your Meds (and Medical History)
The third and most important item on your packing list is your medication. Your doctor should regularly review any prescription meds, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements you are taking to check for unnecessary drugs or even drugs recently exposed as dangerous. He or she can also use this information to ensure new medications don’t interfere with your current treatment. Without it, confusion or gaps in records can lead to an adverse drug event – sometimes serious enough to be fatal.
If visiting a new practice, have your previous doctor send copies of your complete medical records, including specifics about any surgeries, injuries, illnesses, and hospitalizations. Expect an attentive doctor to also ask you about your home and work environment; this means they are developing a holistic view of potential issues contributing to your condition.
5.) Beware of Anything Amiss
Taking charge of your care doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a medical expert. Cliché as it may sound, trusting your gut can go a long way.
While not always obvious, inadequate doctors display common warning signs more likely to result in medical error. Perhaps your doctor rushes you into treatment without taking enough time to understand your symptoms, takes too much time to contact you about test results, communicates inappropriately, appears overworked, or routinely leaves your concerns unaddressed. If so, it may be time to get a second opinion or to look for a new doctor altogether.