Helping Clients Prepare for Initial Medical Appointments

Navigating the U.S. health care system can be challenging. In this post, we share ideas about how service providers can help prepare newcomer clients for their initial medical appointments.  

What do clients need to know?

Prior to their initial medical appointments, service providers should review with clients how the U.S. health care system works and answer any questions. Clients may have received health orientations before traveling to the U.S. and/or shortly after arrival. However, reviewing this information with clients is always helpful because of our system’s complexity. Switchboard has a recorded webinar and accompanying downloadable guide for service providers about how to coach clients on navigating the U.S. health care system.

What do clients need to do before their initial medical appointment?

To best prepare for their visit, clients may want to do the following before the day of the medical appointment. Service providers often assist clients with the initial appointment(s) and coach them on how to complete these tasks for future appointments.

  • Request an interpreter in the client’s preferred language. When and how to request an interpreter depends on the type of health facility where the appointment is taking place and on the client’s insurance.
Often interpreters must be scheduled well in advance—sometimes 10 days or more before the appointment. 
  • Map the route to the health facility or arrange transportation. Mapping out where the appointment is located and how clients will get there is helpful to ensure clients can arrive on time. For example, if clients are taking public transportation, identify the bus they will take and where the bus stops. If clients are taking alternative transportation such as through their insurance, providers can help with scheduling. In addition, share with clients any details they need to know once they arrive at the facility, for example, which door to go through or what floor the clinic is on. This is especially important for appointments at hospitals, which are often confusing to navigate.
Clients may want to take a practice trip on public transportation to time how long it takes to get to their appointment. (This makes for a good intern/volunteer activity). If there is not enough time for a practice trip, verbally walking clients through the journey and showing them online images of key landmarks can help.
  • Organize health-related documents into a folder. It can be overwhelming for both health care providers and clients to manage the large stack of medical documents. If possible, arrange and label the documents into sections—for example, have a folder for each family member or folder sections by health issue. Help clients list any doctors they are seeing in the U.S., and have them take photos of their current medicine bottles.
For clients who cannot read the documents, work with them to select visual cues that can help them identify the most important papers or cards to show medical providers (for example, a sticker on the back of their insurance card).
  • Fill out new patient forms ahead of time. New patients at medical offices often have long forms to complete about their demographic information, medical history, and emergency contacts, and they must also read and sign important documents to indicate their consent. If possible, assist clients with completing these documents before the day of the appointment, using an interpreter if needed. This saves clients and clinics valuable time and ensures that clients can ask questions while completing the forms.

New patient forms may be found on a clinic’s electronic portal or available to print from the clinic’s website. Alternatively, service providers can ask the clinic for a copy of the forms to keep on file.

  • Review expectations, including health care rights and responsibilities. The American Medical Association lists patients’ rights, and Switchboard has a list of rights and responsibilities in this guide. Key rights include clients’ right to an interpreter and right to provide consent for treatment. Key responsibilities include arriving early to appointments and, if clients must cancel, canceling well in advance in keeping with the clinic’s rules. (Cancellation rules often require 24 to 48 hours’ notice.)
Coach clients that there is only enough time to discuss one or two of their health issues per appointment. Work with clients to prioritize the health concerns they would most like to discuss with the clinician.

What do clients need to bring?

Clients should plan on bringing the following to their initial medical appointments. This applies to both primary care and specialist appointments:

  • Test results, including any translated test results from overseas, results from their primary doctor or another specialist, and any test results from their initial health screening (also known as the domestic medical screening) if that screening took place at a different health clinic.
  • List of medication names. List any medicines they are currently taking or need to continue taking. Bringing the medicine bottle is most helpful because providers can see the dosages and other details. Or clients can take photos of the medicine bottle labels with their phone and show the photos to the provider.
  • Insurance card(s) and photo ID. An I-94 can work if clients do not yet have their photo ID.
  • Referrals from their primary care provider if they are seeing a specialist for the first time. Health insurance often requires referrals.
  • List of questions and concerns. Clients should list any questions they have for the medical provider and identify their top one or two health concerns that they want to make sure to discuss during the visit.
  • List of current doctors treating the client so that the medical provider knows who is on the client’s care team.
  • Forms. Bring any new patient forms that the health facility requires.

What can clients expect at their initial medical appointment?

While it will vary depending on the facility and type of medical appointment, below are common steps clients can expect to happen at an initial appointment:

  1. Arrive at least 20 minutes early on the day of their appointment (or earlier, if specified by the clinic).
  2. Sign in at the front desk and wait in the lobby until the receptionist calls their name.
  3. Prepare to show insurance card(s) and photo ID to the receptionist.
  4. Complete any forms, or provide the receptionist with the forms completed ahead of time.
  5. Once their name is called, meet the nurse or medical assistant. The nurse or medical assistant may check their pulse, blood pressure, weight, and height and may ask some health questions such as, “What brings you here today?” (What health issues are they experiencing?)
  6. Clients will be taken to an exam room for privacy.
  7. After waiting, the clinician(s) will enter the room. The clinician will ask more health questions and examine the client. The clinician may want to order tests, prescribe medicine, refer clients to other specialists, or see the client for a follow-up appointment.
  8. The client will check out at the front desk when the appointment is over. This is a good time to schedule any follow-up appointments with that clinician.

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