Talking to your doctor
- If something doesn’t look or feel quite right, or if you think you might have cancer, don’t ignore it – speak to your doctor. Spotting cancer early saves lives.
- Your doctor will want to hear about any unusual changes you’re experiencing. You won’t be wasting their time.
- Remember, whether your appointment is via phone, video call or face to face your doctor is there for you.
It’s important to listen to your body and talk to your doctor if something doesn’t look or feel quite right, or if you think you might have cancer. Whether it’s a change that’s new, unusual for you, or something that won’t go away, get it checked out. In most cases it won’t be cancer, but if it is, spotting it early when treatment is more likely to be successful can make a real difference. The doctor may talk to you by phone, video chat or via an online messaging service first. Around 1 in 3 GP appointments in England are telephone appointments. If they do ask to see you face to face, or book a follow up test for you, it’s important you go. Remember, the NHS is open and your doctor is ready to see you safely.
There’s no need to worry about wasting your GP’s time. If one of my patients has noticed something unusual, it’s better to talk and make a plan together, than them worry about it at home.
Dr Katie Elliott, GP Clinical Lead, Northern England Strategic Clinical Alliance for Cancer
Making an appointment with the doctor
You can make or change a GP appointment by calling the surgery where you are registered. At some surgeries you can also do this on their website. If you’re registered with a GP surgery in England, you may also be able to use the NHS app to book an appointment.
If you are finding it difficult to get an appointment with your doctor, keep trying. We know this can take up your time, but it is worth speaking to your doctor about your symptoms. Try calling back at different times of the day. Ask the receptionist for the best time to call to get an appointment. Many GP surgeries have options to help patients find appointments that work for them, for example, telephone appointments, longer opening hours on weekdays, and even weekend clinics.
How can the surgery receptionist help me?
Remember, when requesting an appointment, you don’t have to tell the receptionist any details – but it can be helpful. The receptionist can help you to get the right care or treatment. Depending on your symptoms, they might be able to get you an earlier appointment or book you in with another healthcare professional who is available sooner, such as a practice nurse or pharmacist.
You can ask the receptionist to explain anything you’re unsure about before your appointment. This includes if you want more information on how a video or telephone appointment will work. If you need any extra help in your appointment, such as a translator, or a chaperone (another member of staff in the room with you and the doctor) you should ask the receptionist for this when you book your appointment.
Here are our top tips on how to get the most out of a telephone or video appointment with your GP.
What do I say to my doctor during an appointment?
Your doctor wants to hear from you if something doesn’t look or feel quite right, you won’t be wasting their time. We asked doctors what helps them and their patients get the most out of an appointment and made some tips on how to prepare for your appointment below. We know that talking to your doctor isn’t always easy, but they are there to listen and want to help you.
As GPs, if there’s something bothering our patients, we want to hear about it.
Dr Debbie Harvey, GP Cancer Lead, North West Coast Strategic Clinical Alliance (Cheshire & Merseyside)
- Be honest. Tell your doctor about anything that’s not normal for you, even if it doesn’t seem that important or you think it might be a bit embarrassing. Your doctor is a professional and is used to helping with lots of different types of symptoms.
- Be thorough. Mention all your symptoms and don’t put it down to ‘just getting older’ or assume it’s part of another health condition. If something’s bothering you, then your doctor will want to hear about it. Try to give as much detail as you can, especially if you’re speaking to your doctor online or by phone and they can’t see you.
- Be prepared. Have a think about how to describe the changes you’ve noticed. Think about roughly how long you’ve had them for and if anything makes it better or worse. Writing down these things and any questions you want to ask, can help. It can also be useful to have a list of medications that you are taking, including any over-the-counter or herbal remedies. Have a pen and paper ready, so you can take notes during your appointment and write down any next steps.
Your doctor shouldn’t do any tests or examinations without asking you first. And they should explain what they are doing and why. If you are feeling worried about your appointment, you may be able to take a trusted friend or family member with you for support – ask your GP surgery first. And if you don’t understand anything your doctor says, ask them to explain it again or in a different way.
Some of my patients come in with all the things they want to tell me written down. That can be really useful to get a better picture of what's going on with their health and helps us prioritise which concerns to deal with first.
Dr Chris Tasker, GP Cancer Lead, North of England Cancer Alliance
After your appointment
- Go for tests. If your doctor has referred you for further tests, it’s important that you attend. Change the appointment if you can’t make the time you’ve been given. You can learn more about different tests or scans you may be referred for.
- Take any medicine as prescribed. Your doctor should tell you about any medication they want you to take and for how long. Ask them about any possible side-effects.
- Follow-up. Your doctor might ask you to call back if your symptoms don’t go away after a certain length of time. And it’s very important you do this. Even if the doctor hasn’t asked you to, make another appointment if your symptoms continue, get worse, or you notice any other changes that aren’t normal for you.
- Stick with it. Even if a test comes back as normal, speak to your doctor again if your symptoms continue to bother you. You can work together to understand the problem.
I always want to see my patients again if their problem or symptom doesn't go away, if it changes or comes back again following a course of treatment. This is really important, because as GPs we want to work with our patients to find the best treatments and way forward.
Dr Neil Smith, GP, Oakenhurst Medical Practice, Blackburn
There are other people who can give you health advice:
- A practice nurse at your GP surgery
- A pharmacist
- Your dentist, if you’ve noticed something unusual in your mouth or on your tongue
- Your optician, if you’ve noticed a problem with your eyes
- The CRUK Nurse Helpline (call free on 0808 800 4040)
- NHS 111 (for urgent medical problems or if you are not registered with a GP surgery)
Office for National Statistics, Cancer survival in England: adult, stage at diagnosis and childhood - patients followed up to 2018. Accessed September 2022. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/cancersurvivalinengland/stageatdiagnosisandchildhoodpatientsfollowedupto2018
NICE, Suspected cancer: recognition and referral, Published: 23 June 2015 Last updated: 15 December 2021. Accessed September 2022. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng12/ifp/chapter/Symptoms-that-might-suggest-cancer
Huggenberger IK, Andersen JS. Predictive value of the official cancer alarm symptoms in general practice--a systematic review. Danish Medical Journal. May 2015. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26050833/