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50+: Live Better, Longer

Be Your Own Health Advocate

Change from passive patient to an active advocate for your own health care.
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The ABCs: How to Talk to Your Doctor

The Baylor program hosts "How to Talk to Your Doctor" workshops in the Houston area. The workshops are intended for those who need advice the most, such as seniors -- who tend to be passive in the doctor-patient relationship -- people who speak little English, and cancer patients.

"We've tried to boil it down to a simple mnemonic: ABC," Haidet says.

A: Ask Questions

Jessie Gruman, PhD, has more experience talking to doctors than most would ever want, having been treated for three different cancers at various times in her life.

Gruman founded the Center for the Advancement of Health, a nonprofit policy institute in Washington, D.C., and serves as its president. Her experience has taught her to ask, "What does that mean?" when something a doctor says goes over her head. "If I didn't say that, they'd just assume that I knew," she tells WebMD.

"The onus is on the patient to indicate when they don't understand something," she says.

Ideally, doctors should always communicate at a level that matches a patient's knowledge, but that's not a realistic expectation. Gruman doesn't fault doctors for occasional and unintentional lapses in communication.

"They're under incredible time pressure and they know a lot," she says. "If you don't understand, they will stop and explain it to you."

Gruman also asks doctors to consider hypotheses she has formed about her health based on her own observations. "It allows my doctors to say either, 'I hadn't really thought of it that way, maybe that's true,' or it allows them to say, 'that bone isn't connected to that bone, so probably not.'"

B: Be Prepared

The average patient has three issues he or she wants to address during a visit with a doctor. Because time with the doctor is limited, it helps to make a list of the most important issues to cover and take it with you.

"If you have something that's really scaring you, it's best to get that on the table early on," Haidet says.

Avoid "doorknob complaints." Those are things you suddenly remember, or pluck up the courage to mention as you're walking out the door: "Oh, and by the way, I'm having chest pain." At that point the doctor can't do anything but tell you to make another appointment, or to go to the emergency room, as the case may be.

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