A woman sits in an examination chair and has her skin inspected by a doctor. A nurse stands in the background holding a light over them

How to Be a Better Patient

June 21, 2023

Getting the health care you need is a two-way street, involving you and your provider. When several physicians are involved, it can be like a multi-lane intersection. Doctors need—and want—your input.

They also know that can be difficult. “It’s not easy to be a patient, to be sick and scared and vulnerable while simultaneously having to navigate an extremely complex medical system,” says Columbia psychiatrist Sara Nash, MD

We asked Nash and other Columbia physicians for tips. Here’s what they told us:

Choose the right doctor for you 

Get a referral from someone you trust and knows you well, ideally a physician, close family member, or friend.

Understand why you are seeing the health care provider

Young woman sitting at desk with feet up making list in notebook

To make the best use of your time and the doctor's or nurse’s time, understanding why you are seeing them helps you to consider and present the concerns you have related to their specific specialty.

If you were referred by another doctor, ask that doctor why. If you reached out yourself, be sure your concerns are aligned with their focus.

Be prepared

Every doctor we spoke to agrees: It helps to be as prepared as possible when meeting with a doctor, whether it is a new or ongoing relationship.  

“Medical appointments can be overwhelming for patients and families,” says pediatrician Divya Lakhaney, MD. “Taking some time to prepare beforehand can be incredibly beneficial to both you and/or your child and the health care provider. Effective communication on both sides takes preparation.”

  • If you have a diagnosis, read about the illness from a reliable source
  • Complete any questionnaire the doctor sends
  • Make a list of questions
    • There’s no wrong question, no matter how specific or broad, including "I don’t really understand what is going on, can you please help me understand my diagnosis?" 
  • Make a list of your (or your child's) medical conditions, symptoms, home medications, and medication doses and schedule
  • Have a rough idea about the most important issue you want to get solved: What is your key question for the doctor?

Tell your story, again

It can be annoying and even stressful to relive your health experience, but you do not want a doctor to rely on someone else’s summary. Each doctor listens with a different ear, and you may recall an important detail one day that you do not on another.

“It may seem like you’re repeating the same thing over and over, but there’s value in telling the story of your experience to each and every doctor you meet,” says Joseph Tenenbaum, MD, a cardiologist at ColumbiaDoctors.

Be honest 

“The more you tell a doctor about your health experiences, even the symptoms that are embarrassing or do not seem related, the easier it will be for them to help you,” says surgeon Spencer Amory, MD. “Some of the most essential clues come up when doctors are simply listening. It’s a team effort. Your part is as important as theirs.”

Clarify next steps before you leave the appointment

Be sure you understand recommendations about tests, additional appointments, and how to reach out to the provider after the visit. Take notes to help you remember what was discussed.

Be persistent and stay engaged

Advocate for yourself but do so respectfully; you don’t have to fight to be heard. 

Stay engaged and collaborate with the doctor in finding a solution to your health challenge.

“It can be overwhelming to disclose deeply held concerns, but it is really our privilege to listen and work with you to make things better,” says Nash. “From beginning to end we are all on the same team: yours!”


Spencer Amory, MD, is the José M. Ferrer Professor of Surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

Divya Lakhaney, MD, is assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

Sara Nash, MD, is associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

Joseph Tenenbaum, MD, is the Edgar M. Leifer Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.