Empowering Patients to Be Active Participants in Their Health Care

Patients need to feel empowered to act as partners in their health care rather than being just passive recipients of that care. Even though more providers are taking a patient-centered approach to care delivery, many individuals continue to feel frustrated that they are not significant partners in the decision-making process.

Why? The reasons are varied. It could be the patient is too ill, has anxiety and feels overwhelmed (check out white coat syndrome). He or she may not know what questions to ask, or simply may be distracted or in a rush to get back to work or to pick up the kids.

I’ve been practicing medicine for decades, seen hundreds of patients, and know that, whatever the reason, it’s not always easy for people to advocate for themselves, ask questions and speak up. In fact, I remember one visit with a young woman whose native language was Spanish. Her English was quite good, but I remember asking her toward the end of her appointment if she fully understood the treatment plan or if she’d prefer to have a translator join us. She immediately said, “No, no, that’s not necessary. I understand.” Following the appointment, a few days later, she called to schedule a follow-up appointment because she ultimately was not clear on her care plan. We saw her in follow up with a translator to ensure we would adequately address her questions.

As providers, we have a responsibility to address these issues. This includes giving patients tips and tools on how to be more active participants in their health care. Here are just a few ways patients and their families can take more control at their next medical appointment.

Have an agenda

Do you have new symptoms or are you managing a chronic illness? Bring an agenda with you outlining a summary of what’s been bothering you, a list of current medications (including why you take them) and a list of questions. The latter may sound silly, but have you ever walked into your boss’s office or called a friend, asked one question, but completely forgot to ask the second question? It happens.

If you write everything down that you want to achieve from your appointment, including all the relevant health history details, you can be sure you’ll have a more productive visit with your health care provider. In the process, you might even feel less anxious and more relaxed during your visit.

Many hospitals and clinics have a list online detailing what to do and know before you arrive. Review that and use it as a starting point.

Ask questions, lots of questions

Feel empowered to get all the answers you need to have peace of mind about your health concern. This may take some preliminary research on your part. For example, if you’ve just been diagnosed with diabetes, it could be worth spending some time reviewing common treatment options before going to your appointment. This way, you can ask more-informed questions of your doctor.

Keep in mind that asking many questions may make for a longer visit with your provider. If you feel like the doctor is rushing you, say something and be firm about the questions you have. If the doctor absolutely must cut your visit short, make sure there is a follow-up phone or in-person meeting scheduled before you leave the office.

Request specialty support when needed

If you are hard of hearing, not a native speaker for the location at which you’re seeking care, or require any additional support, let someone know. Federal law requires all health care institutions in the United States to provide translators and interpreters onsite for patients. To guarantee no delay in your appointment, call ahead and request these services in advance. Your health care team should be happy to provide assistance to ensure you’re getting the best care possible.

Bring the “right” family member or friend

Having a supportive friend or family member along with you can be very helpful, especially if you are suffering from health issues that may impair your ability to advocate effectively for yourself.

Just be sure you pick the right person to come with you. By “right,” I mean someone who won’t be combative, talk over you or the doctor, or ignore your opinions or the doctor’s suggestions. Pick someone who understands their role in supporting you and is willing to fill that role as you see best.

By employing these tactics, you should feel more empowered during your next visit. As simple as they may seem, they will help you to make the most of your face-to-face time with your physician or other health care provider.

Don’t forget, you are the most important member of your health care team.

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