Going to see your doctor can be an intimidating experience; after all, this is likely a person you only see during an annual visit or when you’re already feeling ill. And when they pepper you with personal questions, it can be tempting to withhold some patient information. Does your doctor really need to know about those two glasses of wine you have every other night or that you’re popping aspirin daily?
While it’s tempting to tell a few white lies or omit some info, what your doctor doesn’t know can hurt you.
“[Your doctor] is really looking after your total health, and it’s important for them to know as much about you as they can—not only health-wise, but also your personal and family history, and what your habits are like at home,” explains Robert J. Samuelson, M.D., a pulmonologist, internist, and primary care doctor at Horizon Medical Group.
If you’re feeling nervous about sharing the information, remember physicians have likely seen and heard it all before, and thanks to HIPAA you’re guaranteed patient confidentiality. Your healthcare provider can’t share details with your partner or children—unless you allow it.
So what should you open up about at your next visit? For starters, ask questions about what’s bothering you, encourages Rachel Trippett, MD, a family physician with the U.S. Public Health Service Indian Hospital in New Mexico. “Don’t be afraid to share whatever worries about your health you may have,” she says. “Even if we don’t know the answer, we can find out for you.”
Additionally, it’s important to give details on the following pieces of patient information.
1. Any medications or supplements you’re taking
You should tell a doctor about all the medicines you’re taking, including drugs prescribed by another doctor and over-the-counter treatments—including vitamins and supplements. This helps your primary care provider understand if your symptoms could be caused by a medication.
“Even things like ibuprofen or naproxen, if you’re taking them daily, can impact cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Trippett.
If your physician is prescribing medicine, they’ll also want to be aware of any possible drug interactions that can lead to unpleasant side effects. The FDA has more information about the ways medications can interact with other drugs, food, beverages, and health conditions.
2. Your family and your medical history
Your family’s medical background helps your doctor understand if you’re at increased risk for certain diseases and specific symptoms to look out for. “Knowing if there’s a history of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer—and the type of cancer—are the big ones,” Dr. Samuelson says. If you’re not sure, try and talk to a parent or guardian who might have a fuller picture. If you were adopted or don’t have access to family history, make sure to let your doctor know that as well.
And don’t forget to tell a doctor about your personal medical history as well. Any surgeries or health issues you’ve had in the past could inform future care.
“People don’t see a connection between what they’re experiencing now and what happened five years ago,” Dr. Trippett says. “Or they assume that all the information is front and center in their medical records. It’s our job to hunt things down, but it can really save time if they bring it up.”
3. How much you smoke and drink (and if you take drugs)
Patients often fudge these numbers, but it is important to share how much you’re really smoking and drinking.
“A lot of patients are embarrassed, or they might not know how much they’re actually drinking and smoking,” Dr. Samuelson says. “But this does have a significant impact on your health.”
Smoking and drinking can increase your risk of certain types of cancers, heart disease, and more. But it can also affect how your body reacts to medications, your mental health, and even what types of surgeries you can get. Withholding this information can make it more difficult for your doctor to get to the bottom of what’s going on with your health.
Dabble in recreational drugs? It’s best to let the doc know about this, too. You will be surprised to learn that street narcotics can lead to low testosterone levels, infertility, and even adrenal insufficiency. Injectable drug use can lead to more specific bacterial infections which may require certain antibiotics to be more effective. Often times, sharing a detailed recreational drug use history helps will help with better patient care.
4. If you’re trying to get pregnant
For women, you should tell a doctor if you’re wanting to get pregnant—or if you’re planning to try in the near future. This could impact the medications your doctor prescribes, but she can also inform you on what to expect. If you’re taking birth control, she can advise you about how and when to stop it. Your doctor will likely recommend prenatal vitamins and you can discuss any lifestyle changes you may need to change, such as eating raw fish or drinking.
5. Any major lifestyle changes
Finally, personal issues can affect your health, but you might not even think about telling your physician.
Dr. Samuelson says sometimes he has patients visit and he can’t figure out the medical explanation for their problems. “Then I learn that they’re going through a divorce or lost someone close to them,” he says. “That’s important to know.”
Other changes he suggests mentioning are financial issues, which can interfere with getting medications or access to healthcare; if you’re at risk of losing your health insurance; or personal issues with your partner or children. “It’s important to have an idea of the whole picture, so [you and your doctor] can put together a plan to stay healthy.”