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 some practical ways in which you can prepare for any encounter you might have with the health care system—whether it is a routine doctor’s visit or an unexpected trip to the ER—so you can 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 is 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
Tip #1 – Carry a list of your medications with you
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.
Tip #2 – Write down your questions as you think of them before each appointment
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. You can either use a notepad, journal, or a printable premade log like this one.
Tip #3 – Anticipate what you will be asked and prepare your story
Whether you are going to the doctor for chest pain or flu symptoms, it is useful to reflect upon your situation and to mentally prepare what you want to say. By preparing, you become more aware of your own condition, and this helps you to become an empowered patient. By anticipating 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 to consider as you prepare to see the doctor.
Questions to Ask Yourself as You Wait to See a Doctor
- 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 concerns me the most about my symptoms that I want the doctor to know?
Tip #4 – Consider asking these questions
Often, doctors will present new information about a diagnosis or treatment plan and then ask, “Do you have any questions?” While this is a perfect time to get your concerns addressed, sometimes it can be difficult to think of questions on the spot. The following questions are designed to be a starting point to help elicit useful information and can be applicable to most situations.
Useful Questions to Ask During an Appointment
Questions to ask about a diagnosis:
- What caused my health problem?
- What is the future outlook (prognosis)?
- What can I do to prevent or manage it?
Questions 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?
Questions to ask about a treatment plan:
- What symptoms or side effects should I look for, and what should I do if they occur?
- Are there any other options, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- What will happen if I have no treatment?
Tip #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.
*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.