At one time, the relationship between a doctor and a patient was a whole lot different than it is today. Patients may have never questioned their doctors or other medical professionals about, well, anything. They accepted “doctor’s orders” as the final word and willingly went along with tests and medications without making a peep. But today, health care providers and their patients are much more likely to work together to come up with a plan to keep people in the best of health.
But the only way that relationship can happen is if you learn to speak up for yourself. In other words, be your own advocate. The foundation for any good relationship, whether it’s with your spouse, friends, or your health care providers, is good communication.
Being a self-advocate means learning how to be direct about what you think you may need in terms of your health. It also means listening and learning from your health care providers, all of whom are experts in their fields. From these discussions, you and your providers can develop a plan that works for you. Being a self-advocate also means asking for help when you need it. So if you need help in understanding anything your provider is telling you, ask for it. That way, your journey to better health will be a lot smoother.
A Patient-Centered Approach
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but both patient advocates and health care providers recognize that the most effective care you can receive is when you and your provider make decisions together. That’s because what works and makes sense for one patient may not be the best approach for you. In other words, “one size” really doesn’t fit everyone.
When you share decision-making with your health care provider, it’s called a patient-centered approach. You need to advocate for your own specific values, goals, and preferences. That way your health care provider can better understand your needs and develop a plan specifically tailored to you.
It’s important to remember that you have an absolute right to clear, up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased information about your health. That’s especially important when you’re discussing treatment options, including a treatment’s risks and benefits, alternatives to recommended treatment, and the possibility of no treatment. You also need to take into account your own personal concerns and explain your perspective if you feel that a certain approach may be a burden.
It’s also important to pick your battles. For example, if you have a run-of-the-mill cold, you really may just want to take your provider’s advice to rest and hydrate. But most of us are faced with big health care decisions at some point: choosing genetic or cancer screening tests, the best ways to manage an ongoing problem like arthritis or high cholesterol, discussing long-term medication, or whether to have surgery, for example. Self-advocacy is key when you’re faced with those decisions.
Remember, You’re Protected by Law
One thing that makes being a self-advocate a little bit easier is the fact that you as a patient have very specific rights. Some of these rights are guaranteed by federal law. For example, you have the right to obtain your medical records, and you have a right to complete privacy. That means that anything you discuss with your health care provider will not be shared without your consent. Depending on where you live, your state may have other laws that protect your rights.
One of the most important rights you have is called informed consent. If you need a certain treatment, for example, informed consent means that your health care provider must give you all the information you need to make your decision.
If you have any problem regarding your legal rights, your hospital may actually have in-house advocates or an ombudsman (someone who investigates complaints) who will provide assistance.
Being a Self-Advocate Takes Work
If you want your health care provider to work with you, remember you have to do some work too. So if you have any questions or concerns about new or ongoing symptoms, or how well a treatment may be working, make sure you come to your appointment ready to ask.
Always start with your discussion with an issue that is of the most concern to you. Always be honest. If you’re having a tough time quitting smoking or if you think you may be depressed, tell your provider. That’s the only way to get the best care for you.
Most hospitals and their providers have internet patient portals for communication. Consider using these portals for things like asking questions before your appointment and checking test results, for example. Remember, too, being a self-advocate means asking for help when you need it. If you think you want another set of ears with you at your appointment, bring a trusted friend or family member.
Confront Potential Bias
For patients who are part of a minority -- whether that’s due to race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or sexual orientation -- bias can happen. If you feel you are experiencing some form of bias, whether it is intentional or not, it’s very important for you to self-advocate. That’s because you may have some special health needs. For example, Black women are three times more likely to have fibroids than white women. Fibroids can lead to complications with pregnancy. Lesbians are less likely to get preventive services for cancer. Health care providers and hospitals are taking steps to eliminate bias, but change doesn’t happen overnight.
If you ever feel like your symptoms are being dismissed because of bias, speak up. First, talk to your provider. If you don’t get anywhere, report your concerns to the hospital. And, if necessary, find yourself another provider -- one who respects you, listens, and will work with you.