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The Ins and Outs of Being Your Own Advocate

It's late at night, and you have to work in the morning. After a long weekend of fun and supposed relaxation, you realize you aren't feeling the best. You decide to give it a couple of days and see if your symptoms get any better. If they don't, then maybe you will make a doctor's appointment. Before you check into the clinic, make sure you know the ins and outs of being your own advocate.

1. Do Your Research. We live in this great era where we have all kinds of information at our fingertips. Almost anything and everything can be found on the internet. Several websites also exist where you can check your symptoms and try to guesstimate what illness you may have. My personal favorite symptom checker websites are WebMD and Mayo Clinic. These symptom checker sites also usually have treatment options listed for each illness. Sometimes, you can treat yourself and your symptoms at home without going to the doctor. At others, you may need intervention by a medical professional.

A word of caution, however, before you rely too much on Dr. Google or designate yourself as a medical expert from your web search. Remember, these are only possible diagnoses. Whatever you find on the internet may not even apply to you. I remember a woman in her 60s who presented to the clinic convinced she had a deadly illness that only 3% of the population had. When she told her doctor she believed she had this illness, she refused to accept that she did not have the illness. Because, well, you know, she found it on the internet.

2. Be Prepared. When you go to the doctor, you should be prepared with all of your past medical information. I like to recommend to people to download a health record app. Usually there is one that your care provider recommends, or you can find one on your own. You can also store the information on your computer. If you prefer, you can make a binder with all your health information in it. The most important part is to keep your information up to date. Please keep in mind your doctor may see 25-40 patients a day in the clinic, and your clinic appointment may only be 30 minutes. When was the last time you could remember every part of a 30-minutes conversation you had? 

Being prepared is important for you and your care provider. From my days working at a family practice clinic and even in hospitals, I recall patients walking and dumping shoeboxes of medications on the doctor's exam room desk. Then, the doctor or nurse would have to sort through the medication to figure out what the patient was taking when. Doctors and nurses are not your personal secretaries or assistants. They are there to help you, but you also need to take an active part in your treatment to advocate for yourself. 

Image by Chokniti Khongchum from Pixabay 

3. Know Your Rights. To assist you in being prepared for your healthcare visits, you should get copies of your medical records from every healthcare provider you see. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is your right to do so. In the early part of my career, I worked in medical records and as a medical transcriptionist. I spent hours a day completing reports and sending them to doctors across the state, and even across the country. We used to send them by fax, and then in the mid-90s, we had eFax, so we only had to add the additional providers' names to the list. Many times, patients would call back and be upset about how their cardiologist or neurologist or internist or surgeon did not receive a copy of the medical records or their patient reports. More often than not, the reason the other doctors did not receive the reports was that the patient did not tell the care providers about the other doctors. Clinicians are not mind-readers. They need you to tell them what other providers you are seeing. It can be hard for patients to remember doctors' names, especially if you only saw the doctor once or twice. Most likely, you aren't going to remember the specific diagnosis, either. That is why it is important to get a copy of your medical records following each visit.

If you have questions regarding what is in your medical record, it is your right to ask questions. And, you should. Asking questions is one of the best ways you can be your own advocate. Don't apologize for asking questions, either. You also have the right to receive something called informed consent. That means that you as a patient understand everything that is happening in your treatment and care plan being offered by your provider. 

4. Remember You're On The Same Team. An important component of being your own advocate is realizing you are a valuable member of the healthcare team. When you leave the office or the hospital, the doctors or nurses will not be there to take care of you. Therefore, you need to treat them like they are your teammates. If you have ever played team sports, like football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, or softball, you know that everyone has a role to play on the team. If one person is missing or has to sit out, the whole team suffers. When you don't advocate for yourself, you are essentially putting yourself on the bench. However, you are the star player when it comes to your health. It's really important that you communicate openly with your teammates. It's also important that you treat your teammates with respect. I've seen many times where patients are disrespectful to doctors and nurses. You may have spent an hour or two researching your symptoms on the internet. However, doctors spent 8 years in school, additional years in residency and possibly fellowship training, and may have had several years of practice experience. Plus, they talk about, learn about, and conduct research on healthcare issues all day every day. That's their job. How would you like it if you worked at the store and your customers told you that you weren't any good at your job? Or if you are a teacher and parents tell you that you don't know how to teach (which also sadly happens all the time)? Give doctors and nurses the respect they deserve, just as you would give your teammates on a sports team their place. Understand that they know how to play their positions, and their ultimate goal is for you to feel like you have won and accomplished your healthcare goals.