It’s a scenario that repeats over and over, every day, in doctors’ offices everywhere. Patients, and perhaps their family members, listen intently as doctors discuss diagnoses, tests, procedures, and medications. All too often, patients are not writing anything down, presumably because they think they will remember everything they are hearing. Unfortunately, the opposite is true – most patients struggle to remember what they hear, and to correctly recall the information. Because this can have serious health consequences, it’s critical to take notes at doctor appointments.
How hard is it to remember medical information you hear at a doctor appointment?
A landmark study found that 40-80% of medical information provided by healthcare professionals is forgotten almost immediately. As one would expect, the greater the amount of information presented, the lower the proportion remembered. Of the information that was remembered, researchers found that almost 50% of the information was remembered incorrectly.
Furthermore, it’s even harder to correctly remember information when you hear bad news. Research shows that receiving bad news can make it harder to process information and form memories.
Of course, no one wants to misremember important information related to their health. But I’m guessing most patients think they will remember what their doctor tells them. However, research proves we are not doing as good a job as we think.
What’s a simple way to remember what you hear? Take detailed notes at doctor appointments.
Why is correctly remembering medical information so important?
If you can’t correctly remember the medical information your doctor provides, it will be much harder for you to get the best healthcare and outcome possible. In fact, research shows that without clear information and an understanding of the information’s importance, patients are more likely to:
- Skip needed medical tests.
- End up in the Emergency Department.
- Have difficulty managing chronic illnesses.
Simply put, when you can’t process and correctly remember medical information, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take the steps needed to get the best outcome possible. For example, you may struggle to properly follow doctors’ recommendations, make decisions regarding your treatment options, and take your medications as prescribed.
Taking notes lets you take charge of your medical information!
It’s hard to believe that in this highly digital world, doctors cannot easily see other doctors’ notes, medications prescribed, test results and other pertinent patient information. However, that is often the case, for many reasons, including:
- Not all Electronic Health Records (EHRs) communicate with each other. In fact, right now, most don’t.
- EHRs do not allow the doctor to record the patient’s entire story, or the doctor’s reasoning, leaving the next doctor with an incomplete picture.
- Doctors frequently do not communicate with each other – lacking communication up to 70% of the time.
Therefore, it’s critical for patients and family caregivers to always take detailed notes at doctor appointments. Bring these notes, along with other relevant documents, to every appointment – even to the Emergency Room.
How and when should you take notes at doctor appointments?
Importantly, do not wait until you get home to jot down what your doctor said. And don’t even wait until you get in your car. You’ll forget the information by then!
Instead, during each appointment, write down important information on your diagnosis, treatment options, follow-up care, medications, next steps, and any other pertinent information.
Use a notebook to record all your notes – don’t rely on scraps of paper which can be hard to find and organize. You can also use your notebook to record things at home, including questions for your doctor and any side effects or symptoms.
If you think you won’t be able to take notes during an appointment, bring a trusted friend or family member to take notes for you, and/or record your appointment with your phone (ask permission first).
What about typing notes instead of writing?
I am a big proponent of old-fashioned writing when taking notes at doctor appointments. Why? Firstly, it’s easier to maintain eye contact with your doctor while writing on paper versus typing.
Additionally, if you use a tablet, phone, or laptop, you may be a victim of auto-correct, with important words or phrases changed dramatically, leaving you guessing about what you meant to type.
Lastly, space is often tight in a doctor’s office, which can make it hard to use a laptop or tablet.
Most importantly, taking notes by hand can improve understanding.
A study on note taking by college students found that students who took handwritten notes remembered the material better and were able to synthesize the information better than students who typed notes on a laptop.
Additionally, several other studies have shown the benefits for learning when taking notes by hand, as compared to taking notes on laptops.
Certainly, it’s hard to say if this translates into note taking in a doctor’s office, but I’m guessing these findings apply.
That being said, if you really want to keep your notes electronically, you can easily type up your handwritten notes when you get home.
Consider recording your appointments.
In addition to taking handwritten notes, you might want to record your appointment as well. Since there are legal considerations, read my post for more information: Should You Record Medical Appointments?
Taking detailed notes at doctor appointments is only one part of being engaged in your care. Read these blog posts for tips that can help you get the best care and outcome possible:
- 10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors.
- 10 Tips for a Better Medical Appointment.
- Communication Gap Among Doctors.
- How Can You Get the Best Healthcare? Actively Participate!
- 6 Tips to Better Manage Your Care.
- Understanding Medical Information Is Harder Than Most Realize.
NOTE: I updated this post on 4-5-21.
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