You walk into your doctor’s office. You really need to find out why that headache won’t go away. It could be a tumor right? Google said it could be a tumor. The doctor knocks, comes into the room and about 5 seconds later asks “so what brings you here today?” That’s actually a more loaded question than it seems, because what she is actually doing is starting to take your medical history.

What’s a Medical History?

A medical history is the way a doctor gets to know more about you and your medical problem. The medical history will be much different if you are seeing the same internist you have seen for the last 10 years, or the expert you flew all the way to Scottsdale to consult about your Crohn’s Disease. A medical history is the first tool the doctor will use to lead her to a diagnosis, to more testing, or even an immediate hospital admittance. There is a lot riding on what you say, and even how you say it.

What Does it Matter?

Obviously, there is a huge difference between being put in an ambulance headed for the emergency room and just wandering down to the lab for a blood test, and your medical history could make the difference between those two outcomes. Sure, that might be a little dramatic, but most patients don’t realize what they say is quite important to their doctor. “It’s a long held opinion in medicine that about 70% of diagnoses can be made on the basis of the history alone,” says Dr. John Sotos, co-founder of Expertscape. The history allows the physician to understand who you are, medically speaking, and what your symptoms really are. Not what Google says they are, but how you feel, how it differs from your “normal”, and how it impacts your everyday life, emotional health, and overall well-being.

How to Give a Medical History Right

That’s a lot of pressure – what if you do it wrong or leave things out? Here are 5 things you should, and 5 things you shouldn’t do, to give the most accurate and most useful medical history possible:

Do’s

  1. Do start with your current, most pressing problem. Describe your symptoms as clearly and simply as you can. Say when they started, how long they last, what they feel like, and why they are different from how you normally feel.

  2. Do tell the doctor ALL the medications you are taking. Don’t leave anything out, even alternative medicines and supplements. How they work together (or don’t) might be an important part of the diagnosis.

  3. Do try not to leave anything out, and do tell the truth. You don’t know what your doctor might consider important.

  4. Do include past major illnesses and hospitalizations – they are important. Don’t omit them, even if you think they are not related to your current problem.

  5. Do expect the doctor to interrupt you with questions. If this happens less than 30 seconds after you start talking, don’t feel bad – that’s very common!

Don’ts

  1. Don’t rush. Yes your doctor’s time is limited, but you will save time in the long run if you are careful and complete.

  2. Don’t be afraid to tell your doctor the embarrassing things you wouldn’t even tell your spouse or best friend. This is your doctor, she’s heard worse!

  3. Don’t forget to show your doctor any notes you have made about your symptoms. Writing things down before your office visit can save a lot of time.

  4. Don’t exclude habits that effect your health: how much you drink, smoke, if you use drugs, and the amount you exercise get can change a diagnosis.

  5. Don’t be worried. Your doctor is here to listen and ask questions. This is the first step to making you feel better.

Now What?

Once you have given your history, your doctor will most likely examine you, then talk to you about what will happen next, be it medication, tests, or just a period of wait and see. As always, ask questions if you don’t understand – it will help both of you. If you don’t like an option or you know a medication doesn’t work well for you (maybe it always upsets your stomach) – speak up. In the current health system, the best thing you can do is advocate for yourself and those you love.

One way to advocate is to make sure you are seeing the right doctor with the best knowledge about your condition or symptoms. That is why Expertscape was created, to give everyday people an easy, objective way to find the top experts.