Become an empowered patient

Navigating the healthcare system can certainly be tricky these days. We have access to more information and treatment options than ever before, but we’re also faced with many challenges. Even if doctor shortages, understaffed facilities and long wait times weren’t an issue, there are also medical errors and misdiagnoses to worry about. A lack of communication between patient and doctor and among members of the healthcare profession can have costly consequences too.

So what’s a patient to do? It’s time to be our own health advocate, experts advise. Whether you’re looking after your own health or someone else’s, here’s what it takes to be an empowered patient:

Know yourself

When you have all the information you need, you can make informed decisions. However, doctors aren’t always asking the right questions, and patients often find they remember crucial details after their appointment. Experts recommend gathering as much information or “evidence” as you can and keeping records. For instance:

Know your medical history. When put on the spot, can you recall the relevant details of your past health? Sometimes things that seem trivial — like childhood infections or digestive upsets — can be important later on.

Compile a family medical history. Want to know your risk for future illness or whether your doctor should screen you for a certain condition? The answer may lie in your family tree. Talk to your relatives and take note of the health issues that affect your family members. Knowing more about their lifestyle habits and successful strategies for managing illness can be useful too. (See A family tree for better health for tips.)

Keep a record of what medications you’re taking. People are using more prescriptions, supplements and alternative therapies these days, especially as they age. To help head off any dangerous interactions, keep your own list of everything you are taking and bring it with you to your appointments and to the pharmacy. (Tuck a list in your wallet too for emergencies.)

Journal your health. We keep records of our purchases and finances, why not our health? Taking time to take notes can help make sure details aren’t missed. For instance, documenting your symptoms can help reveal patterns over time.

A journal can also help facilitate communication because you have pertinent data in writing. For each appointment, jot down what you discussed and what the next steps are — like treatment, tests and follow-up appointments. (If you’re a caregiver, you may want to do this on behalf of the person in your care as well.)


Be informed

Today’s patients have more input in their treatment options, but do you have the information you need to keep up? Here are some steps to stay informed:

Boost your health literacy skills. Most patients aren’t medical experts, but everyone should have basic skills like being able to read a prescription bottle label, find local services and understand some “med-speak”. Steps to upgrade your skills can include reviewing basic or specialized medical terminology, learning how to find and evaluate reliable health information sources and locating healthcare services in your area, like a walk-in clinic or services for the children or seniors in your life.

Learn about your condition. There’s only so much a pamphlet can tell you, but there are many resources for staying on top of your health. Books, magazines, non-profit organizations, awareness campaigns and support groups can provide the facts you need to live well — like the latest treatment options and healthy living strategies.

The internet also makes it easy to search out information with a variety of general and specialized websites, but be careful to balance reliable sources with online forums and discussion groups. (See Beyond Dr. Google for more tips.)

Read up on patient safety issues. Do you know what common medical mistakes to watch out for, or why it’s important to use a surgical safety checklist? Some simple steps like asking staff to wash their hands before they examine you or to double check your information before giving you medication can spare you unpleasant consequences. (See Dangerous medical mistakes and Safer surgery: what you need to know for more details.)

There’s also a local element as well: keep your ears open for stories affecting your area, like new clinics opening or issues like hospital infections.

Take responsibility

Understand your treatment. Do you know why you’re taking a certain medication and what the risks are? Not sure how to properly measure it, or what to do if you miss a dose? Believe it or not, many patients don’t understand the details of their treatment plan or why it’s necessary, and that can cause problems from non-compliance to medication mistakes.

According to patient education program Ask Me 3, there are three essential questions patients should ask their doctors:

1. What is my main problem?

2. What do I need to do?

3. Why is it important for me to do this?

Write them down if you need to, and make sure you get answers during the course of your conversation.

Follow instructions. Any treatment is only as effective as a patient’s willingness and ability to follow through. It’s important to stick to the plan — like following any dietary and exercise guidelines and making sure you take your medication as ordered, even if you’re feeling better.

Not sure you’re doing the right thing? It’s okay to rethink your options, but experts warn to talk to your doctor before making any changes. Sudden switches can have dangerous consequences, and you may need to be weaned off a medication or face withdrawal.

Be honest. It can be hard to admit you haven’t been following instructions or to talk about embarrassing problems. Even personal or financial problems can impact your health, and many patients dodge questions about complementary and alternative medicine therapies they’re trying. Without this information, your doctor could be basing decisions on faulty information. (See 10 secrets not to keep from your doctor for tips on talking about difficult topics.)

If you’re having trouble sticking to your treatment, let your doctor know so you can discuss strategies to help you stay on track.

Speak up

One important message the patient safety advocates want everyone to hear: speak up if you have questions or concerns. It may be difficult to question experts, but empowerment means finding and using your voice. For example:

Keep everyone in the know. If you’re seeing more than one person, don’t assume they all share information — even if your area has electronic health records. Make sure every specialist you see has the relevant details of your medical history, current issues and treatments.

Ask questions. If you don’t understand something, don’t be shy. Ask for clarification and ask questions if you’re missing details.

Ask staff to double check the details . Whether it’s checking your hospital wrist band before administering medication or reviewing your information prior to surgery, you can avoid human errors by asking staff to double check information. Concerned about cleanliness? Ask them to wash their hand before they examine you too.

Get a second opinion. Don’t agree with your doctor? It happens, and though it can be a delicate situation, it’s your right to seek a second opinion. Some credit cards benefits and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) have access to services like Best Doctors, but you can also ask for another referral.

Take backup. A second set of eyes and ears can be a boon at any appointment, especially if you have vision or hearing issues. However, your friend or family member can also act as your advocate and speak up on your behalf. It never hurts to have someone who isn’t afraid to ask questions, or who can keep their eyes peeled for errors while you’re in the hospital.

Overall, there are a lot of pitfalls to our healthcare system but there are a lot of benefits too. Using these steps to become an informed and empowered patient can help you avoid mistakes as well as take advantage of new treatments, tests and procedures.

For more information about patient safety and advocacy, see: Patient Empowerment
Canadian Patient Safety Institute Empowered Patient
Empowered Patient Canada
National Network of Libraries of Medicine: Health Literacy

Prefer a book? Try The Empowered Patient by Dr. Julia A. Hallisy and The Empowered Patient by Elizabeth Cohen.