Just like taxes and laundry, medical appointments are inevitable. Unless you're a superhero, you'll probably need to see a health professional now and again. It is fair to say that seeing the doctor — or a dentist, specialist, allied health professional — can also seem like a chore.
Sometimes you have to wait a long time in the waiting room. It can be costly. For people in rural and remote areas, there may not be a doctor nearby. If English is not your first language, the doctor might literally be speaking a foreign language to you.
Meanwhile, some people have 'F.O.F.O. — fear of finding out'— where they avoid the doc altogether, fearing the news will be bad.
But health practitioners are usually there to help patients — and there are many things you can do to make the most of your appointment. Because dodging the doctor, if you need to see one, isn't a good idea.
Ask your doctor all the questions
You have the right to ask your health practitioner as many questions as you like, particularly when it comes to tests and treatments. Not all procedures offer benefits, and some pose risks.
Choosing Wisely Australia recommends asking your healthcare provider these 5 simple questions:
- Do I really need this test, treatment or procedure?
- What are the risks of this test, treatment or procedure? Will there be side effects to the test or treatment? Is there a chance the results won't be accurate? Could that lead to more testing or procedures?
- Are there simpler, safer options? Could lifestyle changes such as eating healthier foods or exercising more be a safe and effective option?
- What happens if I don't do anything? Ask if your condition is likely to get worse — or better — if you don't have the test, treatment or procedure straight away.
- What are the costs? Is there a cheaper alternative?
Click here for a full list of questions you can ask your health practitioner, including your pharmacist. You can also use the healthdirect Question Builder to create your own script so you don't forget your questions once you're in the appointment.
74% of patients report that their GP always listens carefully to them, 81% report that their GP always shows them respect and 76% report that their GP always spends enough time with them. —Australian Bureau of Statistics
Don't get 'bill shock' at the doctor
One in 25 people don't always see, or delay seeing, their GP due to cost, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2017-18 Patient Experience Survey. Only 1 in 2 people saw a dental professional in a 12-month period, with a big chunk of those people also skipping the dentist due to cost.
While many GPs bulk bill — they charge the patient only the amount that Medicare will reimburse — some charge above what Medicare will pay. This is known as a 'gap fee', or 'out of pocket' expense. For example, if Medicare will pay $37.50 and your GP charges you $37.50, then you will have nothing to pay (bulk billing). If your GP charges $70, then you will need to pay a gap fee of $32.50.
Even if your GP's clinic doesn't advertise bulk billing, you can ask your doctor to bulk-bill you if you need financial help (although they can decline). Whether you're seeing a GP, specialist or allied health professional, ask how much the consultation or treatment will cost before you confirm the appointment, including any potential unexpected costs.
Get an interpreter if you need one
If English is not your first language, or you don't speak it all, you can still have an effective and safe consultation with your health practitioner. It's not always recommended that friends or family interpret medical information.
When delivering Medicare-repayable services in private practice, GPs, specialists and the nurses and support staff working with them are eligible to use the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) for free.
TIS National connects non-English speakers with the professional they need to speak to, using an interpreter over the phone. In some cases, an in-person interpreter can be arranged.
Pharmacies can also access the service for free when dispensing medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Other healthcare providers who don't fit the eligibility criteria can use the service at a charge to them.
More appointment tips
- Bring a list of medications that you take now, including the dose and frequency and noting if you've ever had an adverse reaction. Tell your doctor if you take any complementary medicines or recreational substances, as well.
- Book a longer appointment if it's your first visit to this doctor, if you want a full check-up or travel health advice, if you need counselling or if there is more than one issue to discuss.
- Ask the health practitioner to repeat all their advice at the end of the visit.
For more information
- Choosing Wisely Australia, an initiative of NPS MedicineWise, can help you navigate your medical options.
- The Consumers Health Forum of Australia has evidence-based information and resources to help you better understand healthcare.
- To check a health practitioner is registered or to make a complaint about a health practitioner, visit the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
- To find a healthcare provider near you, use the healthdirect service finder.
Want more like this?
For health and wellbeing news you can use, go to the healthdirect blog.