Take Control of Your Health Care Journey: 5 Essential Tips for Being Your Own Advocate

By Teri Dreher, RN, guest blogger

Many of us seem to have a love/hate relationship with the health care system in our home country. We appreciate the many medical breakthroughs that allow us to live longer, happier lives, but we’re frustrated by how hard it can be to get the quality health care we need.

Why does it have to be so complicated? Actually, it doesn’t — at least not always — if you know how to work the system. The trick is to learn how to be your own health care advocate.

You don’t need a medical degree, but you do need good communication skills, patience, and a willingness to roll up your sleeves. While learning to self-advocate is a process, here are my top five starter tips for taking charge of your health care.

Master Your Health History

Can you recite your complete health history from memory? How about your medications and dosages? If you can’t, you’re not alone — but this is information you really need.

Do this one-time task: Document your complete health history in writing, including a separate list of meds. Keep both lists current, updating as go, and put them on your phone. While you’re at it, take a photo of your vaccination card and put it on the phone, too.  Because if you’re not on top of your health history, who will be?

Learn to ‘Speak Doctor’

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average doctor’s visit is just 17 minutes long. When you have an upcoming appointment, prepare in advance, writing down all your questions, symptoms, worries, etc.

Unless your doctor initiates it, don’t engage in personal chitchat; keep the focus on your health. It’s your 17 minutes, so make the most of them.

Communicate Your Needs Clearly

The doctor has the medical training, but you know your body — especially your limitations. Your doctor may think they know what people with your disability typically experience. But as everyone who actually has a disability understands, there is no “typically.”

This means that if your doctor says something that indicates they don’t understand your personal experience, it’s your job to politely explain it to them. For example, they might prescribe a treatment or exercise regime that you know won’t work for you.

If that happens, speak up. Chances are that your doctor will be grateful you did.

Don’t Keep Secrets  

You’d be surprised how many patients are less than honest with doctors, either because they’re embarrassed or afraid they’ll be sent for additional testing. But if you’re having chest pains, aren’t taking your meds, or are failing to follow your doctor’s orders, you need to speak up. The only one you’re hurting is you.

Be Polite (But Persistent)

These days, doctors and nurses are under tremendous pressure. Showing courtesy and appreciation will always get you better results than anger and attitude. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

It’s okay to keep asking for answers when you don’t get them the first time. In fact, you owe it to yourself to do so. But it’s not okay to be rude, ever.

Ask for Help When You Need It

When it comes to health care, sometimes you need a wing man (or wing woman). For example, if you have trouble focusing in the doctor’s office, ask a family member to come along and take notes. Or if you’re putting off getting, say, a colonoscopy because you’re reluctant to ask a friend for a ride, get over it. And remember: you can (and should) return the favor!

In summary, it’s easy to be intimidated by the health care system. But self-advocacy is one of those life skills that you can develop with a little practice and coaching. TwP

Teri Dreher, RN, is a patient advocated with NShore Patient Advocates. She is the author of How to Be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones, available on Amazon. She would be happy to offer Thrive With Paralysis readers a free phone consultation. Reach her at Teri@northshorern.com.

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