Patients who take an active role in their own care tend to have better outcomes, but many patients are unsure how to take charge of their healthcare needs.
The keys to being your own advocate, says Lakesha Debardelaben, MS, CHES, are organization and communication.
“Keeping up with paperwork and payments can help you avoid problems, like a lapse in coverage or a missed appointment,” says Debardelaben, manager of guest services for Methodist Charlton Medical Center. “Good communication between you and your doctor puts him or her in the best position to help you.”
Communication with family members is also important, says Debardelaben. “It can be uncomfortable to start a conversation about sensitive matters like advance directives,” she says. “But if you put it off, you run the risk of causing problems for your loved ones, or that your wishes won’t be carried out.”
Whether you are going to a physician for an annual physical or checking into a hospital for surgery, it’s important you look out for your own best interests.
Before your doctor’s visit, write down any questions you have or reminders about what you want to discuss. Bring this information to your appointment and be ready to make additional notes.
For best results, don’t try cover too much at once. “If you have more than three or four things on the list, consider breaking your visit up into two appointments,” Debardelaben says.
Ask smart questions
Questions keep you better informed about your options and keep you and your doctor on the same page. Here are few you might consider for your next visit:
- Based on my history, am I at risk for developing any conditions—and if so, what can I do to minimize those risks?
- You’ve referred me to another physician. How do I make that appointment and what records should I bring with me?
- Are there alternative options for me to consider other than the treatment plan you’ve outlined for me?
- Are there any screening tests that I haven’t had or scheduled that you recommend?
- Are there any downsides or risks to my medication or scheduled procedures?
Looking up symptoms or information about a diagnosis can help you become a more informed patient, as can asking friends and family members about their healthcare experiences. But proceed with caution. “Just because your friend told you something doesn’t make it true, and not all of the information floating around the internet is reliable,” Debardelaben says. “Take the advice of family and friends with a grain of salt and stick with content that’s sponsored by reputable healthcare organizations, such as the American Heart Association.”
Don’t be afraid to raise your hand if you don’t understand something the doctor has told you, if you have a problem, or if anything that is happening to you doesn’t seem right.
Sometimes patients are reluctant or embarrassed to discuss certain types of problems, or to disclose information like alcohol consumption, drug use, or whether or not they’ve been taking their medication.
“That’s understandable, but your doctor is going to be better equipped to help you if he or she has all the facts,” Debardelaben says. “Remember that doctors have seen and heard it all. They’re not going to be shocked or judgmental about anything you say.”
Designate a patient representative
If you’re checking into the hospital, ask about the process for designating a patient representative who can make decisions on your behalf about visitation and other matters, should you become incapacitated.
Make sure your medical power of attorney, advance directives, and living will are current and on file with your hospital
You should also make sure that a family member or other appropriate person has access to these documents as well.
“A good place to start if you haven’t executed these documents yet is the chaplain’s office of your hospital,” suggests Debardelaben. “You can take care of this any time, not just when you have a hospital stay on the horizon.”
Keep your doctors’ contact information in one place
Whether it’s a spreadsheet on your computer or a spiral bound notebook, keep your doctors’ names, addresses, specialties, and phone numbers in one handy location that’s also accessible to a family member.
Get your medical records organized
Keep your payment records, insurance documents, discharge papers, test results and other important documents in a file folder or notebook. Or, you might consider going paperless with a medical record app. “Just make sure you’ve researched an app thoroughly before you entrust it with your confidential healthcare information,” Debardelaben says.
Keep a master record of your medications
Write down each medication’s name, the dosage level, why you’re taking it, and where you get it filled. Make sure that someone you trust knows how to locate the information in the event of an emergency.
Set aside time each month for healthcare tasks
Doing so will help you keep on top of recordkeeping, payments, and appointment-making. And speaking of appointments…
Set up a system of healthcare reminders
Once you have an appointment scheduled, develop the habit of setting up a “three-day reminder” on your smart phone or print calendar, or ask a friend or family member to help you remember.
Follow your treatment plan
“One of the best things that you can do for your health is to follow your doctor’s advice,” Debardelaben says. “That includes things like losing weight, quitting smoking, coming back for follow-up visits, scheduling recommended tests, and taking medication correctly.”
Is there a doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off? Find a physician by calling 214-717-6873 or go to answers2.org.