Ever walked out of your doctor’s office feeling unclear about how to implement a new aspect of your treatment plan, or about the potential side effects of a medication? Or maybe you suddenly remember a list of questions you wanted to address but forgot to ask when you were in the exam room.
Not only can these situations be frustrating, they could potentially damage your health if they prevent you from following your doctor’s prescribed course of treatment, keep you from seeking additional treatment or lead to not receiving an accurate and swift diagnosis. That’s why self-advocacy is an important skill for anyone navigating the medical system.
“It is absolutely critical that patients advocate for themselves,” says R. Ruth Linden, Ph.D., an independent health advocate and Founder and President of Tree of Life Health Advocates in San Francisco. “The days of patriarchal medicine are over and patients must be informed consumers of health care.”
These steps will help you chart a successful course throughout every phase of your trip to the doctor’s office.
Before you arrive
Linden suggests taking a moment to consider the purpose of your visit and write it down. Ask yourself if this is this a one-time consultation or if you’re interviewing a doctor to determine whether you want her to follow you for the long term. “The approach you take may be quite different depending on your goal,” she says.
Make a list
Jot down questions you want to have answered during your appointment. “Review them before your appointment because they may change after you’ve thought them over,” says Linden.
Then prioritize the list in order of importance, as your doctor will likely only have time to discuss a few of the questions in one visit. “Many patients are afraid of bothering the doctor or are embarrassed that they will be perceived as uneducated,” says Nicole Rochester, MD, a physician, patient and caregiver advocate and founder of Your GPS Doc, LLC.
Asking questions is the only way to ensure you have all of the information you need to care for yourself effectively, she says.
Phone a friend
Ask a friend to accompany you to your appointment to take notes and provide a second pair of eyes and ears. Linden says somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of the information provided by a healthcare provider in the course of a visit is immediately forgotten by patients. “Almost 50 percent of the information that is remembered is incorrect,” she adds. “This is true for patients of all ages, including those with no cognitive or memory problems.”
Having an extra set of eyes and ears can reduce confusion and the chance of misremembering the information covered during a visit with the doctor.
During the Appointment
Bring a list
To ensure you’re fully prepared for your appointment, keep an updated list of medications and any supplements, herbal treatments, etc., you’re currently taking. Rochester says a primary health care provider may not know that a recent trip to a specialist to treat arthritis pain resulted in a change to the medicine you take daily. “That could lead to interactions, unwanted side effects or even complications,” she says.
“Knowing your health history and current medications, etc., will let your doctor know that you are serious about your care and want to make sure your visit is worthwhile,” says Rochester.
It will also reduce the risk of miscommunication between health care providers.
Slow things down
Linden stresses that patients should never feel rushed out of the exam room or that their doctor is in a hurry to conclude the appointment.
“If your doctor makes you feel rushed, speak up,” she advises. “If your doctor doesn’t change his or her approach, find another doctor.”
And don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to speak in lay terms as much as possible.
Don’t hesitate to interrupt and ask, “Would you please explain that to me in plain language?” And never leave the office until you fully understand the diagnosis, prescribed treatment, upcoming tests or procedures, etc, says Rochester.
Lisa Doggett, MD, a board-certified family physician in Austin, Texas, learned the importance of persistence several years ago when dealing with her own doctor’s office. “I kept calling my doctor’s office until I found a nurse who went over in detail the results of my blood test over the phone. She first said everything was ‘normal.’”
But it was only once Doggett pushed for the details of each tests that she learned she had early menopause at age 41.
“If I had not been so persistent, my diagnosis would have been missed,” she says
Ask for help
Doggett emphasizes that your doctor’s care can extend beyond writing a prescription and checking your blood pressure. “You may need to enlist your doctor’s help to get a prescription medicine approved or receive free medicine through a patient assistance program, to get an urgent appointment for a test or with a specialist if needed or to help you access extra services you may need, like home health or physical therapy,” she says.
A good patient-doctor relationship should include your comfort in speaking up for yourself and asking for help.
Rochester says never to assume that no news is good news. “Call for results if you don’t receive them via a patient portal or phone call from your doctor’s office,” she advises.
And ask your doctor’s office to send you a copy in the mail of any labs or tests that are done in order for you to ensure there’s clear communication between your health care providers.
Rochester points out that your primary health care provider may not know if you go into the hospital or visit the emergency room. “Not only should you make sure your doctor knows when you go to the ER or are admitted to the hospital, you should ask the doctor that cares for you in the hospital to send records and also call your primary care doctor to share what happened while you were there,” she says.
Similarly, when you see a specialist, your primary care doctor may never know unless you tell them. “You should always remind the specialist to send records to your primary care doctor, and you should take notes of any recommendations or medication changes recommended by the specialist,” says Rochester.