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Everyone has the ultimate responsibility for their own health. Yet, so often there’s the expectation that you are supposed to accept as given any advice, treatment, or diagnoses that medical professionals offer. Yes, it is important to remember that they have expertise that you don’t, but your relationship with them should be predicated on mutual trust and respect. By choosing to be your own health advocate, you are empowering yourself to make the choices about your body and your health that are right for you.
This isn’t always an easy balance to strike. Particularly if you’re not feeling at your best, or even facing a serious illness, the idea of advocating for yourself may be a source of anxiety. Yet, it is an important factor in making sure that you consistently get the care you need throughout your life. This doesn’t just pertain to your physical health either, it is a vital component of maintaining your mental wellbeing, too.
So, let’s take a little time to review what it means to be an effective advocate for your health.
Engaging in Research
If you are going to be your own best health advocate, this has to begin at home. Staying well informed is the key to making certain that you can confidently grasp and communicate your concerns to your doctor or specialist.
Before contacting your doctor’s office, it can be useful to look into your symptoms. Not from the perspective of self-diagnosis but to confirm for yourself why they might be a cause for concern. Have they lasted longer than usual? Are there certain activities you’ve been performing that might be causing them rather than an illness? This is helpful information to provide your doctor should you decide to have a consultation. Moreover, it demonstrates to your physician that you are fully engaged with your health and an active participant in your wellbeing.
Research becomes especially important when it comes to treatment. You are not obligated to take certain medications just because they are recommended. Indeed, there have been instances where pharmaceuticals that cause more harm than good have been prescribed, and lawsuits have arisen as a result. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has, for instance, been investigating Zantac — a drug used to treat stomach ulcers and acid reflux — on this basis. The concern is that Zantac contains an impurity linked to several types of cancer. This is far from the only example of commonly prescribed medications that are believed to be carcinogenic to some extent. As such, whenever you are prescribed treatment, take the time to conduct research. Use credible sources, though — research papers and medical journals — and be wary of biases that news sites and such may have. While online resources can be useful, in-person advice can be just as valuable. Reach out to other doctors; these could be friends or family members, or even local university researchers. Start positive conversations that can give you more nuanced and varied insights into the subject.
Communicating with Your Doctor
Advocating for yourself at the doctor shouldn’t be a combative activity. Some doctors indeed have narrow-minded views of what the doctor-patient relationship should entail, but you’re likely to find that doctors tend to appreciate savvy patients. The key to approaching the matter is communicating effectively.
Your best option is to talk about your care as a collaboration. Make it clear to your doctor that you respect their expertise — particularly in the midwest, doctors are often required to have a broader and deeper range of knowledge than in other areas — but that it’s important to you that you’re working together. Asking questions is a vital start to this collaboration. If there’s anything you’re not sure of, ask your doctor to explain further. If there’s anything they’re not sure of, suggest finding the answers together. Communicate your desire to be involved in your care rather than the subject of it.
When it comes to the subject of medications and treatments, don’t be afraid to push back a little against being immediately prescribed a certain drug. While your doctor is likely to have your best interests at heart, they may also be subject to relationships with drug manufacturers and insurance companies that inform their decisions. Have your doctor talk you through the full range of options like escalating the doses of medications for certain conditions, such as GERD. Start with over-the-counter medications, discuss their efficacy and limitations, before moving through alternative options. Remember that some medications may not be suitable for long-term use. Go into as much depth as you need to to feel comfortable with the course of action, including understanding potential side effects.
Seeking Second Opinions
In the end, unless you pose a risk to others, your healthcare choices are entirely yours to make. Doctors are not infallible, and you may not be entirely confident of their diagnosis or recommendations for treatment. Indeed, for women and people of color, in particular, misdiagnosis is around 30-40% more common, largely due to historical biases in medical studies toward white men. As such, it is important to be honest with your doctor about your desire to obtain a second opinion.
Don’t approach this from the perspective of mistrust in your doctor. Rather, make it clear that you appreciate their insights, and intend to use them as part of your further investigation into your condition. Request copies of all medical reports and tests — this is a good idea, even just to keep a full record of everything that has already been tried. You’ll generally find that your physician will welcome this approach from you, both from the perspective of your taking responsibility for your health, but also as this may help to confirm the diagnosis and recommendations they’ve made. Lots of improvements have been made in health over time, especially with technology, and doctors understand the importance of questions and further examination.
It can feel daunting connecting with new doctors, particularly if you’ve already undergone the rigamarole of testing and discussing your symptoms with your usual physician. However, you can make use of the advantages of our digital age. Telehealth services have become more accessible, even if they are not covered by your insurer, you can often find affordable options. Taking the remote healthcare route can save you time from traveling to and waiting in different doctors’ offices, and you can share your medical records securely via the telemedical platform to cut down on the time you need to talk about your testing history.
Being your own best healthcare advocate is vital to ensure your ongoing physical and psychological health. Do your research using credible sources, and treat your doctor as an expert collaborator on your path to wellness. Remember that it is not insulting to request a second opinion and doing so can provide you with the knowledge and confidence to make more informed decisions about your care.