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6 Ways to Get More Out of Your Doctor Appointments

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It’s a strange paradox: As medical science has advanced, actual medical care—that is, interaction with patients—has taken a nosedive. The average doctor appointment is now 15 minutes long, and practitioners often spend the entire appointment looking at computer screens.

This is a problem for more than one reason, physicians and patient care experts Saul Weiner and Alan Schwartz say in their book Listening for What Matters. The book is the result of a 10-year study, in which the authors sent more than 1000 patients and patient actors into doctor appointments with hidden tape recorders. Reviewing the tapes, the authors found that the doctors’ most frequent mistakes were not medical (like prescribing the wrong medication), but contextual, like failing to pick up on the fact that a patient with asthma could no longer pay for his medication. If a doctor simply prescribed more medication or a higher dose, that patient would still be unable to take his medication, and his health would continue to worsen.

“So much of the way we measure quality in healthcare is based on what’s in the chart,” Weiner told us, "and if you had looked at the chart of that patient and many, many others, you would say, ‘That was great care.’ But if you were there and listening in and asked the right questions, you’d realize it was terrible care.”

Patients can’t make their doctors better listeners, Weiner says, but we can meet them halfway. Here are six ways to ensure you’re getting the best possible care.

1. FIND THE RIGHT DOCTOR.

“One of the things that was really interesting in our work was that we discovered that even in that 15-minute window, there were big differences across physicians in how well that time was used,” Weiner says.

If a patient has a doctor who talks over them or ignores important information, “I think they should find somebody else," Weiner says. "I know that sounds harsh, but we underestimate how important the non-chemical parts are to how we do in our health. There’s such a myth that it’s all about getting the right pill or the right procedure. In fact, being healthy and feeling comfortable about how you’re managing your healthcare goes far beyond that. It really requires having a doctor who you feel comfortable with and who you feel does not talk down to you.”

2. DO YOUR RESEARCH, AND BRING IT WITH YOU.

“When you go in to talk to your physician, it’s perfectly appropriate to share with them what you’ve learned on the Internet. I would be concerned about any physician who’s dismissive," Weiner says. "If your doctor says, ‘I don’t want to see that,’ that’s not a good sign. A physician should be open to seeing what a patient wants to share.”

At the same time, Weiner says, there’s lots of misinformation out there, and it’s often hard for non-doctors to know which sources are reliable. If your doctor tells you not to trust the material you found, you should probably listen.

3. TAKE STOCK OF YOUR LIFE.

“Most medical care doesn’t happen in the doctor’s office. It happens when you get home. So: Are you having trouble remembering to take your medicines? Are you having trouble understanding what you’re supposed to do when you go home? Are you having trouble paying for it? Are you overwhelmed because you have other responsibilities that are getting in the way of making it to appointments? Have you lost transportation or someone who used to help you with your care? If your doctor is aware of these difficulties, it’s often possible to accommodate them. Being up front about these issues is critical. If you don’t, doctors are sometimes judgmental and they just assume that you don’t care.”

4. RECOGNIZE THAT YOUR DOCTOR IS HUMAN.

“It’s important for patients to recognize that doctors need help, and if you have stuff going on in your life that you’re struggling with, like you’ve lost your health insurance, or you’re having trouble managing your medication because you’re going to school and there’s no place to take it—whatever the issue is, speak up. Before I became a physician, I kind of thought doctors were all-knowing and would figure this stuff out, and they don’t. You have to help your doctor.”

5. RECORD YOUR APPOINTMENT.

Weiner recommends that everyone tape their appointments to review later. It’s a great way of making sure you hear and understand everything your doctor is saying. “I’m very comfortable if a patient wants to record our visits, because I think that’s terrific. It shows that they are trying to get the most out of it, and I see it in a positive way.”

Unfortunately, not all doctors are so accommodating. If yours refuses, Weiner says, “it’s reasonable to let them know that you’re hoping you’ll get more out of the visit by recording it. If they flat-out refuse, I find that a little troubling. Because if your goal is to get the most out of your visit and they’re so concerned about being recorded that they won’t let you, it seems like they’re putting their needs above yours, which is concerning.”

6. BE RESPECTFUL, BUT DON’T HESITATE TO STICK UP FOR YOURSELF.

Your doctor may be the one with a medical degree, but it’s your body. “I think of a doctor visit as being two people working together to share and solve a set of problems. When you go in there, it’s important to relate to your doctor the way you’d like them to relate to you, which is being respectful, but also open. You share with them what you’re thinking, and you’re also on the lookout for evidence that they’re willing to do the same.”

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

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Book cover for Leave Me Alone With the Recipes
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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

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Cover of The Butchering Art
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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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