By Helen Harris
hronic disease, persistent but undiagnosed pain, terminal illness, a seasonal cold, the standard yearly checkup: People visit primary care doctors and specialists for varying reasons. But despite the motive behind these visits being starkly different, the common thread (and frequent challenge) many individuals face is knowing how to present symptoms, medications and lifestyle changes to best help the doctor understand what is going on internally.
There is often a disconnect between doctor and patient—a debilitating one—where the patient fails to paint the whole picture, and the doctor fails to fully listen and dig for more information before drawing premature conclusions. The patient leaves physically and emotionally drained while the doctor is still poorly informed.
So, how is a person able to best advocate for him or herself and know that the doctor is getting the “full picture”…not just handing out a prescription or misdiagnosing?
USA Today News, covering the very topic of patient advocacy at the doctor’s office, first advised to “Come prepared, speak up and take notes”. In the article written by Marina Affo of the Delaware News Journal, a mom suffering from fibroids in her uterus emphasized the importance of searching and selecting the right doctor. Shana Payne, the patient, was luckily able to get the help she needed because one doctor took the time to ask the right questions and run the correct tests. And Payne listened, took notes and spoke up.
“‘No one had ever told me anything about fibroids,’ she said. ‘No one had told me that having heavy periods like that was abnormal.’ And it was all because her doctor took the time to ask her questions that others hadn’t, Payne said. Asking simple screening tests on physicals is what Payne would like to see changed.”
Furthering the topic of patients coming into the doctor’s office ready to advocate for themselves, Dr. Deborah Crabbe, a cardiologist and professor at the Heart and Vascular Institute within the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, states,” Knowing how to weigh oneself and knowing how to read food and drug labels are all skills that, while seemingly simple, would make people healthier and doctor’s visits easier. If patients have this information at the ready at appointments, they can advocate for themselves.” Crabbe said.
So, for a patient to follow Dr. Crabbe’s advice and knowing as much as possible about their condition is the right move. With doctor’s appointments being so short and generally “to the point,” being prepared to answer all of the general questions and jump into the complex subject matter right away will help maximize that 15- 20-minute appointment window.
The next stop in patient advocacy is doing research and knowing up-and-coming treatments for a disease or condition. Everyone has the common chuckle about “Doctor Google” and how patients need to stop relying on him. There is a difference between WebMD and reading scholarly articles and asking for more resources from the doctor about a condition. Patients should stay informed and keep learning to be their own best advocates.
Litsa Dremousis echoes this sentiment in The Washington Post article, “I always advocate for myself with physicians. Some make mistakes—and some of those mistakes are serious.”
She states, “… Stick to the facts, don’t make it personal and show respect but never get intimidated. It helps to remember that the best physicians truly appreciate both that you’re paying attention and participating in your health. It sounds paradoxical but the smarter the physician, the more comfortable they are learning new information from the patient.”
Also, something else worth noting is that there is always room for a second or third opinion. That one doctor’s opinion is not the end-all-be-all. Specifically, when exploring specialists, these professionals have very road-mapped approaches to diagnosing and “phasing into” medicine, and of course, their bedside manner is something substantial to consider. In finding the best place to receive treatment, consider insurance coverage and how expensive visits are. Understand the fees ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as needed. Even after receiving a medical bill, always review it, as it often may contain errors.
In Elizabeth Renter’s article titled “6 Ways to Be Your Own Health Advocate,” in the U.S. News & World Report, she cites that “An estimated 8 in 10 medical bills contain errors—errors that go undetected without the sharp eye of an empowered patient. Medical bills can be difficult to decipher.” Linda Adler, CEO of Pathfinders Medical
Advocacy and Consulting, recommends playing defense when it comes to medical bills: “Assume that if something can go wrong, it will, and take every possible step to make sure nothing does.”
To recap, by coming prepared with the facts, speaking up and taking notes, researching any conditions, seeking second opinions if needed, and understanding the billing and insurance side of the health system, a patient is well on the way to being the best advocate for him or herself possible at the doctor’s office. Additionally, doctor’s appointments are guaranteed to be more bearable and productive when the doctor and patient understand each other and can develop a plan together.