3 Suggestions for Using a Written Agenda to Improve Your Next Physician Meeting

Confucius said, “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”

I don’t know if he was thinking about visits to his own physician at the time, but his wisdom certainly applies on this topic. To ensure a satisfying experience when accessing healthcare, it’s important to prepare, prepare, prepare.

The best way to prepare is to think of your appointment as a business meeting and, therefore, to create and rely on a formal, written agenda. I mention this tactic frequently – to my clients and in this newsletter – and given the positive feedback I always receive, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate a bit on how best to use this simple tool.

Many benefits

At its simplest, a written agenda is no more than an ordered sequence of items to be discussed in a formal meeting. But simple or not, it has a number of benefits for you as the patient:

  • It helps you take control of the meeting
  • It demonstrates your commitment to participate in your care
  • It reminds you of the agenda items you wish to discuss
  • It creates an opportunity to summarize your understanding of the discussion
  • It helps clarify next steps and action items for those involved
  • It specifies when you should return to see the physician

Click here to view (and print) a sample agenda. Then read on for three suggestions regarding how to use it.

Suggestion #1: Share it at the beginning of your meeting.

I always begin the appointment by sharing my agenda at the time of check-in with the front desk. I say to the receptionist or medical assistant:

“I prepared for my appointment today with Dr. _________ and wrote some things down to guide our discussion. Is it possible to place this on the front of my medical record so that Dr. _________ might glance at it prior to seeing me?”

If the front desk person says it is best to give it to the physician myself, I wait and as the doctor enters the room and greets me, I say the following:

“It’s great to see you today, Dr. _________. I spent some time preparing for our visit together and to help organize my thoughts, I prepared this agenda. Would you mind taking a look at what I wrote before we get started?”

Suggestion #2: Make multiple copies.

I always bring a number of copies: one for me, one for the physician, one for whomever else may be attending the appointment on my behalf, as advocate, note taker, additional set of ears, etc.

The piece of paper in front of each of us – and the pencil in my hand for notes – helps me take control of the meeting. It also gives me something to take notes on as the discussion proceeds. (By the way, it’s hard to listen and write at the same time, which is why, if possible, it’s helpful to bring along a trusted note taker.)

The written agenda also allows me to intermittently review what’s been talked about, to be sure we’ve discussed everything and that all of my questions have been answered.

Suggestion #3: Summarize at the end.

As the meeting draws to a close, I conduct a verbal summary. I say things like:

“My understanding of the discussion today is that for the topic of _________, the treatment plan going forward is _________ and the outcome I should expect is _________.”

“You’ve answered my question about _________ and my understanding of your response is as follows: _________.”

“Action items I must take between now and our next visit are: _________. Your action items include _________.”

“I should expect a phone call/letter from you with my laboratory results and plan to see you again in _________ months.”

If any questions remain or clarifications are needed, this end of meeting summary gets them on the table so that we may address them, right there and then.

One final thought

When I suggest the idea of a written agenda and step through the three suggestions above on how to use it, clients often express concern with “offending the physician,” by taking such an active role in their appointment.

Such deference must become a thing of the past. First, because it’s your health and you therefore must participate as an equal partner.

Second, because physicians want and need you to take on more responsibility for your health and your healthcare experiences (really). When I do this for clients and act as their advocate, the physician often takes me aside to thank me for the efficiency that led to a productive and satisfying visit. (This survey conducted by Consumer Reports provides great insight into a physician’s perspective.)

Remember, think of your physician meetings as business meetings and prepare and use a written agenda throughout. Let me know how it works for you!