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Tell Your Doctor What’s on Your Bucket List

It'll help direct your health where you want it to go


Your doctor can’t read your mind. A doctor assumes everyone wants to live and continue to live the best, healthiest, happiest life possible — but that means something different for everyone. If your doctor knows about your long-term goals and “bucket list” items, however, that can be used to direct your health plan and goals.

Dr. VJ Periyakoil, an internist, geriatrician and palliative care professional at Stanford Health Care wrote a piece for the New York Times about how she regularly asks her patients about their bucket lists.

“I started doing this to forge a personal connection and get a quick glimpse into what matters most to each of them,” she wrote.

In Periyakoil’s experience, most patients have bucket lists already — whether it’s burgeoning in the back of their mind or a concrete list pinned to a bulletin board.

Why a Bucket List Is Useful

What Periyakoil does with this information comes in two parts.

First, she uses the bucket list items as incentive for more healthy behaviors. “For example, I found that saying, ‘I don’t think your half-marathon is happening anytime soon if you don’t quit smoking’ got my patient’s attention much faster than making obvious and boring statements like, ‘Smoking is bad for you,’” she wrote.

But more importantly, the bucket list goals guide Periyakoil toward or away from certain medical decisions or recommendations.

She used the example of a patient diagnosed with a serious case of gallbladder cancer. When asked about his bucket list, the patient assumed he’d take his family on a trip to Maui the following year — after his radiation appointments. Periyakoil, knowing how the treatments would affect his ability to travel, suggested going to Maui while he still could and starting the treatments after the trip.

“If I had not asked about his bucket list, he would have stoically undergone the radiation and chemotherapy, and the Maui trip would have remained a sunny fantasy,” she wrote.

Making it Work

Periyakoil co-published a study in the Journal of Palliative Medicine to discover more about what’s on Americans’ bucket lists. The study suggested six prevailing themes of bucket list items: a desire to travel, personal goals (such as running a marathon or writing a book), life milestones (like marriage or children), quality time with friends and family, financial stability and daring activities (like surfing and bungee jumping).

These themes resonate with the experiences of Next Avenue readers and writers as well. We have stories about older adults setting out to conquer the largest and longest recreational bicycle touring ride in the world, learning to tap dance at 85 and skydiving with an early-onset diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Some of these common bucket-list items might not seem relevant to your health and therefore irrelevant to bring up in a doctor appointment. But Periyakoil rejects this notion.

“Many [people] — especially those who are not in perfect health — may underestimate the extensive coordination required to make their bucket list wishes possible,” Periyakoil said.

Your bucket list items may be completely in reach, and if your doctor is up-to-date on your goals, he or she can better advise you on how to best achieve them and when — taking into account health obstacles that may affect you in the process and avoiding treatments that could get in the way.

By Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel is an editor at Next Avenue. Her work has appeared in Minneapolis-St. Paul's alt-weekly City Pages, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Stereogum.com, The Riveter Magazine, VICE's Live Nation TV, 89.3 The Current and more. She most recently worked as an editor for a B2B magazine in New York City. She holds a degree in journalism and gender, women and sexuality studies from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities where she was the editor-in-chief of the student magazine, The Wake. Reach her by email at gbirnstengel@nextavenue.org.

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