The Right Way to Tell Your Doctor Where It Hurts

Following these 5 tips for describing what ails you can help your healthcare provider tell you why!            

Lori Murray
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Questions for Doctor, Health Exam Questions

Think of your favorite detective story—the hero with a crime to solve, the interesting details, the false leads and the surprises along the way. Believe it or not, those same classic story elements can help you get the most from every medical exam.

“The diagnosis is within you and the story you tell,” says Joseph Pinzone, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA. “How you prepare for the exam will help you tell a straightforward story that gives your audience—the healthcare provider—what it wants to know: What is your chief complaint and the history behind it.”

But can’t you just wing it during the exam? “If you don’t have your story ready, the doctor will have to drag it out of you, which interrupts his or her thinking,” explains Dr. Pinzone. “I compare it to the difference between driving on a road with stoplights versus driving on a highway.”

The good news: You don’t have to be a master storyteller to be effective! Just prepare your “health story” ahead of time with these simple steps:

1. Write it down. “If you don’t, you’ll forget something,” says Dr. Pinzone, who is also medical director of AMAI Medicine in Santa Monica, CA (see more about his practice at “Take 15 minutes to a half hour the day before your exam to record what happened. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; bullet points are fine, but it has to be in chronological order.”

2. Be specific. What happened? When did it happen? Providing a lot of detail helps your provider quickly rule out certain diagnoses, explains Dr. Pinzone. “So instead of saying, ‘I’ve been having this stomach pain for a while,’ try, ‘I started noticing stomach pain about three weeks ago after I had the flu. It sort of went away but then for the past two weeks I’ve had this burning and it’s right here [point to the area], and it won’t go away. I tried over-the-counter heartburn medicine, which didn’t help. Then I stopped drinking milk and that helped a little...’ and so on.”

3. Say what surprised you. How was this headache different from other ones you’ve had, for example? Is it the timing, the quality, the location? Does ibuprofen usually relieve your headaches but this time it didn’t?

4. Describe the set and supporting cast. What’s changed since your doctor last saw you? Did you start taking care of a sick parent? Are you going through a divorce or major changes at your job?

5. End with your concerns. Are you worried it’s cancer because you have a family history? Did you find something online that sounds like what you have? “If my patients find something online, I say, ‘Let’s discuss it together,’ ” says Dr. Pinzone. “The Internet can be used as a source, but verify everything with your doctor.” 

April 2014