Becoming an empowered healthcare patient

Our complex health care system is very difficult to navigate. Historically, doctors behaved paternalistically – tell the patient what to do and they should do it. We all know it doesn’t work like this. Through the years, the health care system has become more informational – provide the patient with all their choices and let them make decisions about their health. However, patients have not been equipped to make these decisions in light of their goals so they are often railroaded into inappropriate care.

The movement toward patient empowerment is changing the landscape. Instead of a paternalistic or solely informational approach, the health care system is being forced toward a more collaborative way of working with patients. The health care provider should take the time to understand the patient’s goals, needs, and resources, and help them decide what care is appropriate for their situation.

The key to patient empowerment is education. A patient must know their rights and responsibility to get the care they need. What does this entail?

  • Be prepared for your appointments. It is good to write out how you are doing, current symptoms, current medication regimen, and even your diet if your medical problem is diet related.
  • If you have complicated issues, ask for a longer appointment in advance.
  • Write down the questions you want answered during your visit.
  • Make certain the doctor provides answers in laymen’s terms, not in medical jargon.
  • Before a visit is over, make sure you know what is going to happen next and why.
  • If testing is ordered, ask what the doctor wants to learn from the test and how the results may change the approach to treatment. If the doctor cannot provide a clear answer, ask if the test is really necessary.
  • If medication is ordered, understand the benefits and risks, how long you will be on the medication, and what are the alternatives to the medication being prescribed.
  • Ask what you can do to improve the situation. Doctors will not often provide the education needed to improve diet related illnesses or home therapy to improve musculoskeletal problems. If they are not able to provide this education, ask for a referral to the appropriate nutritionist or physical therapist.
  • If you are too ill to participate in your health care to this extent, involve your health care surrogate to act for you in this capacity.

If a health care provider seems annoyed or hurried, ask if they have someone else who can provide your answers, or if another appointment can be made to give the doctor time to provide your answers. If the doctor is not accommodating to your request, then begin seeking another doctor. But do not “let it go” – make certain the doctor and the associated health care organization understands why you are dissatisfied. When patients stand up for their right to collaborative care, health care organizations will have to respond.

By preparing for who you are instead of who you want to be, you can decrease frustration with yourself, your family, and your health care providers. Everyone will be more realistically prepared for the potential outcomes which will save time, heartache, and money. This will help you, your family, and your health care providers have a more harmonious relationship for the rest of your life.

Being an empowered patient can also help you better manage the cost of your care. Unnecessary testing and treatment is out of control. By being an empowered patient, you can help stop the waste and get better care as a result.

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