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What your GP says…and what they really mean

We've interviewed 15 GPs to get their tips on how you can get the best from your GP surgery

With the average GP consultation lasting only 10 minutes, there’s no time to waste on miscommunication.

To get the best from your appointment, you need to understand what’s going through your doctor’s mind when you walk through the door. So we interviewed 15 doctors to find out what you can do to help your GP.

From clearly articulating what you need from your doctor to avoiding small talk, read on to find out what your GP says, and what they really mean.

We’ve also teamed up with the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) to produce a patient leaflet that includes useful advice and resources for getting the best from your GP.

“What’s the appointment about?”

Whether you speak to the surgery receptionist or – increasingly – a GP triaging potential appointments, you’re likely to be asked this question.

The old-fashioned view of receptionists acting as guard dogs to keep you away from your GP is outdated. Try to think of them as your ally in finding the person most skilled to help you.

As one GP explained: ‘I see between 30 and 40 patients every day, and a good 10 to 20% of them I didn’t need to.’ By clearly telling the receptionist or the GP what your appointment is for, they can ensure there are fewer wasted face-to-face appointments.

“Is it urgent?”

And don’t hate them for asking ‘is it urgent?’. It may be the question that many of us dread when we ring for an appointment, but we’re likely to be misinterpreting what’s being asked.

The receptionist does not expect you to be the judge of how serious your illness is. That’s the GP’s job. They are really asking if you’re OK to wait for the time it takes to get a non-urgent appointment.

“How are you today?”

When your GP asks this, they’re not making small talk. What they really want to know is the main problem that will be the focus of the consultation.

Include a summary of why you’re there in your first sentence.

Don’t be afraid to give a recap too. If you’re at the surgery for a follow-up on test results, give a 10-second précis of why you’re there (for example ‘I’ve been feeling very tired, and so you organised tests to rule out anaemia’).

One GP said: ‘Patients seem to think that we’ve had half an hour to read their whole 50 years’ medical notes, and we haven’t. We’ve literally opened the notes and called them in.’

“What do you think’s going on?”

No, the GP is not expecting you to don a stethoscope and diagnose yourself. Instead they’re seeking to understand any ideas you’ve developed about what might be wrong, and any worries you’re having.

You are also an expert, in your own symptoms and health, so the GP is consulting you to help crack the case (think: ‘I’ve got a cough and a fever’, rather than ‘I think I might have a chest infection’). Avoid vagueness (‘a really bad headache’) and try to describe how it is feeling.

It helps if you can establish a chronology – what order things happened in, and over what period of time. This can help GPs rule out some things and point to others.

A useful question the GP might ask is when you last felt well. Avoid too much extraneous detail (‘it started on a Friday night when I was watching Gogglebox…’). But do say if big life events may be affecting your health.

“What were you hoping I’d do?”

This is not the GP’s way of telling you that they haven’t got a clue. They are trying to understand what expectations you have so they can best meet them. Are you looking for reassurance, treatment or just acknowledgement?

Tell the GP what you’re hoping and expecting from the consultation (Reassurance? A certain medicine? A private referral?). Speak up if you’re worried you may have something serious. If you don’t talk about these issues, you’ll leave without an answer to your main questions.

Treat your consultation as a shared discussion and let the GP know what’s important to you. For example, you might be prepared to take a drug with certain risks if it means alleviating your symptoms.

One GP reflected what many told us: ‘You’ll often hear it from relatives, who say, “Dad came to see you, he’s really worried that he’s got multiple sclerosis or something”, when you know that isn’t a possibility… but as they haven’t brought it up themselves, you haven’t been able to allay their fears.’

It’s ok to suggest treatment ideas. If you’ve read about a new drug that you’d like to try, write down some of the specifics of what you’ve read to share with your GP.

But remember that many drug trials are reported by the media at very early stages (sometimes even during animal trials) and long before they’re available for NHS use.

“So, just to recap…”

By the end of your appointment you should have agreed a way forward, and it’s the GP’s job to make sure you’re happy.

But it could be helpful to repeat back what’s been discussed and agreed, as well as the next steps (for example, ‘I think what we’ve agreed is that you’re going to do X, and I’m going to do Y?’).

The GP should also do what’s known as ‘safety-netting’. Here the GP makes sure you know what to do if, for example, things get worse or you get certain symptoms. This is the time to check that you understand this and ask any questions (for example, ‘what should I do if…?’), or check the possible side effects of any medication.

“Let us know if you’re not happy”

You’re perfectly within your rights to see another GP if you’re not convinced by what you’re being told. You can change your GP or surgery if you’re not happy.

You can also complain, but do think about sharing your concerns first with the GP or practice manager before escalating things to a body such as your local Clinical Commissioning Group (in England, or equivalent bodies in other parts of the UK).

As one practice manager told us: ‘It can be quicker and more effective for everyone for me to drop everything and spend time with an unhappy patient, rather than deal with a protracted formal complaint.’

For more advice about getting the best from your GP, download our patient leaflet produced in partnership with the Royal College of GPs.

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