Doctor’s appointments can be as frustrating as they are necessary, especially if arthritis is not the only reason you’re in the office. You wait and wait, then you finally see the doctor, and suddenly it's over. 

The frustration is often due to what seems like little time with the doctor,  says Larry Mauksch, a senior lecturer on family medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies doctor-patient communication. His research indicates that people spend an average of 18 minutes with the doctor at each visit. 

“The evidence suggests that the length of the visit with the physician has not decreased as much as doctors and patients think it has,” Mauksch says. “What has changed is the amount of time available for a meaningful exchange.”

Doctors today are required by the government, insurance companies and professional organizations to carefully document nearly every aspect of patient care – from how they protect your privacy in the waiting room to how often and how long they wash their hands.

“All these extra requirements come into the medical encounter and take time,” says Mauksch.

But there is a way, even with so many demands on your doctor’s time, to have your complaints heard and get your most important needs met – all within that 18-minute window.

Improving communication with the doctor will help you get the most out of the brief interaction.

Several studies by researchers at the University of California at Irvine have demonstrated that good doctor-patient communication resulted in lower blood sugar levels in diabetic patients and lower blood pressure for patients with hypertension. Other studies have found that positive doctor-patient visits result in reduced pain for patients with cancer and other illnesses.

But the converse is also true: Miscommunication with you doctor isn’t just aggravating; it can be life-threatening.

“Unless we are really trained and activated,” Mauksch says, “we tend to give up a lot of power to physicians.” And studies have shown that the more equal the relationship between doctor and patient is, the more likely it will translate into health benefits. 

The interpersonal and communication skills of a doctor have become so important in recent years that the certification of physicians and accreditation of residency programs (the on-the-job training programs doctors must complete after medical school) now requires an assessment of doctors’ competence in these skills.

Here are some of the sample questions from an assessment tool developed by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), the certifying board for internists. The voluntary survey can be used by physicians to discover how well they relate to their patients.

How good is your doctor at . . .

  • Being truthful, upfront and frank; not keeping things from you that you should know?
  • Greeting you warmly; calling you by the name you prefer; being friendly, never crabby or rude?
  • Treating you like you’re on the same level; never “talking down” to you or treating you like a child?
  • Letting you tell your story; listening carefully; asking thoughtful questions; not interrupting?
  • Showing interest in you as a person; not acting bored or ignoring what you have to say?
  • Explaining what you need to know about your conditions and what to expect next?
  • Using words you can understand when explaining your conditions and treatment?

So, how does your doctor measure up? How would you rate him/her on the above questions and what questions would you add to the list? Also, is bedside manner as important to you as medical qualifications? Arthritis Today wants to know. Share your thoughts and opinions with fellow readers in the space below.

Here are the ways you can take charge at each stage of your visit, and communication strategies that will ensure you feel better before you even leave the office.

Before the Visit

Put pen to paper. Make a list of all the reasons you want to see the doctor. These may include everything from unexplained aches and pains to prescription refill requests to questions you have about something you read on the Internet. Mauksch says it’s also a good idea to prioritize the list so you can tell your doctor what’s most important to address at that visit.