Have you ever left one of your health appointments disappointed with your visit? Maybe you had just spoken to a health care professional, but instead of feeling like all of your concerns were addressed, you found yourself with even more questions? In this article, I will present practical tools that you can use to help you prepare for any encounters you might have with the health care system–whether it is a routine doctor’s visit or an unexpected trip to the ER—and by helping you make the most out of your interactions with your health care professionals. In short, these tips will show you how to be an “empowered patient.”
What does it mean to be an Empowered Patient?
Even though many are aware of the importance of communicating with their doctor or health care professional, it is frequently a challenge. Sometimes, due to their rushed nature, the visit itself can lead to frustration and discouragement. Perhaps your doctor said something that you didn’t understand, but you did not feel comfortable asking for clarification. Perhaps you went to a doctor with several concerns, but they were not addressed during the visit. Or perhaps you just didn’t feel comfortable enough around your doctor to bring up certain personal matters. Whatever the reason, I am going to help turn this around by helping you become an empowered patient. What does this mean? To be an empowered patient means that 1) you know what you want out of your visits, 2) you are prepared for your visits, and 3) you know what actions to take to get the most out of them.
How to be an Empowered Patient
#1 – Carry with you an up-to-date list of your medications at all times
Even in this age of electronic medical records, few things are more valuable than when someone is able to provide an accurate list of all medications, vitamins, and supplements that they currently take. If you haven’t yet, take the time to write down all your medications, including the name of the medication, how much and how often you take it, and what it is for. Then put it in your wallet. If you have a smartphone app that does the same thing, use that. The next time a health care provider asks you, “What medications do you take?” show them your list. This will help streamline the intake process, leaving more time to address issues important to you. It will also be invaluable if you encounter a medical emergency one day.
#2 – Whenever you think of a question or a concern regarding your medicine or your health, write it down. Bring that list to you to your next visit
Given the time constraint of doctor’s visits and their rushed nature, it is easy to forget what you wanted to ask and just go along with your physician’s agenda. By having a physical list in front of you, not only will you feel more empowered as a patient to actually ask them, but your physician will see that you have questions and allocate time for them.
#3 – Prepare your story
Whether you are going to the doctor for chest pain or a cold, it is important to prepare your story. By preparing, you become more aware of your own situation, and this helps you to become an empowered patient. This is because all health care professionals base their treatment plan on certain details that you provide about your symptoms. By knowing ahead of time what you are going to be asked about, you will not be caught off guard and will be able to provide all the important information as accurately as possible, which will help you get the best care possible. The following are questions that you should always ask yourself as you prepare to see the doctor.
♦ Question to ask yourself before each visit
- When did the symptoms start?
- Where is it located?
- How long does it last?
- What makes it better or worse?
- Have I had similar symptoms before, and is it getting worse or better over time?
- Have I recently changed medications, diet, or exercise regimen?
- What do I think is causing my symptoms?
- What concerns me the most about my symptoms that I want the doctor to know?
- What other information do I want the doctor to know?
By thinking about these questions ahead of time, you will be able to provide as many important details as possible without leaving out pertinent information. This will save both you and your health care team a lot of time and frustration and allow the visit to go more smoothly.
#4 – Know what questions to ask
This is so important. All too often, doctors will present their information and then ask, “Do you have any questions?” only to have your mind draw a blank. Therefore, to get the most out of your time with your health care team, make an effort to always ask these questions:
♦ What to ask about your diagnosis:
- What caused my health problem?
- What is the future outlook (prognosis)?
- What can I do to prevent or manage it?
♦ What to ask about medical tests or procedures:
- How will the results affect my treatment?
- What will happen if we do not do the test?
- How can I prepare for it, and what will it be like?
- How and when will I get the results?
♦ What to ask about your treatment plan:
- Are there any other options, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- What will happen if I have no treatment?
- What symptoms or side effects should I look for, and what should I do if they occur?
#5 – Always be honest with your physician
If the treatment plan being discussed sounds confusing or makes you hesitate, always say something before you leave. Never feel afraid to tell your health care provider that you would prefer an alternative treatment or to simply say, “I know I’m not going to take that medication, because ___[your reason]___.” By being empowered to speak up, you will be doing the best thing for your health, as he or she can then work with you to find the best solution that you both feel comfortable with.
#6 – You should feel absolutely comfortable with your health care provider
This is so important. I hear all too often about bad patient experiences, and as a physician, it breaks my heart. Every health care provider has a different personality and treatment approach, and it may not mesh with yours. Instead of feeling as if you can’t say anything, I would like to encourage you to not stay silent. If it is merely a matter of personal preference, kindly ask for another provider. However, if you feel like someone is simply being unprofessional, say something. Tell them, or ask to speak to hospital management. Remember: you deserve to be respected and you deserve the best care, so do not settle for anything less.
*The information presented in “How to Be an Empowered Patient” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.