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Take charge of your health by being a good patient Posted: May 15th, 2010

By Megg Mueller

Megg Mueller is a journalist with almost two decades of experience. She has worked as a reporter and editor for the Reno Gazette-Journal, as editor of health care and education manuals and was an assistant travel editor for USATODAY.com.

Doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinics and treatment facilities all play a part in the health care system, as do insurance companies, HMOs, and the like, and it can often feel like you, as the patient, are just a bystander. But now, more than ever, it's crucial that patients learn to be their own advocate and become the best patient they can possibly be.

Christine Leyden is an RN, MSN, and Senior Vice President and Chief Accreditation Officer of URAC, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes health care quality through accreditation and certification programs. She wants people to remember that "our health changes over time, and preventive health care is essential. Oftentimes, we only look at our health when we're ill but it's important to look everyday. We are the keepers of our health."

In keeping with that advise, remember that part of being the best patient is the process of educating yourself so you can receive the best quality health care available.

You can think of your patient experience as a three part process:

1. Before Your Appointment

While each step is important, especially if you're seeing your health care provider for the first time, it's a good idea to review this information before each visit. This is particularly true when you're being seen for a new ailment or condition.

Leyden says when people go to the physician, the biggest mistake is not being prepared to ask questions. "They might have been waiting long time, so they're frustrated. Bring a little notebook with your questions in it, and tell your doctor you'll be writing down answers."

Before you are in your doctor's waiting room you should be prepared with the following:

 

  • Write down everything you want to tell your doctor. You should also note anything you think you should show your physician. Include how long the symptoms have been plaguing you, changes in severity, and any new conditions. Tell your doctor anything that might have had an impact on your new symptoms.
  • Do some research on your symptoms or condition. Make sure you use reputable Websites if you use the Internet, such as credible associations like the American Diabetes Association. You can also talk to your health care provider or nurse, or check with your insurance plan provider; oftentimes they have resource lines for patients. Leyden encourages patients to make sure there is a reputable source for information found on the Internet, and to make sure if there is a date on the material. Outdated information can be a problem. She also suggests finding accredited websites, and notes that URAC requires accredited health websites to update their information once a year. A list of URAC accredited sites can be found on their website.
  • Write down follow up questions. Once you have some background information, review it carefully and then write down any questions you may have about the symptoms or conditions. Spend some time thinking about all the things you'd like to know, and list everything. This is a very important step, as people can often forget things once they get to the appointment.
  • Make a list of all the medicines you normally take. Don't forget to include any herbal medicines, over-the-counter medications, vitamins and any supplements. Prescription medications can cause terrible side effects if mixed with other substances, so it's important that your health care provider is aware of everything you're taking before any other medications are prescribed.
  • List all your allergies. Medications you're allergic to are especially important to tell your doctor about.

 

During Your Appointment

Remember, your doctor is your partner in caring for your health and wants to help you feel your best. Be sure you treat your physician as an ally, and not as a foe.

Here are steps to take during your appointment:

 

  • Ask questions. Use the list you made, but also question anything your physician says that you don't understand. If you need to stop and ask for clarification, do it. Repeat what you've heard, in your own words, to make sure you've understood everything correctly. Keep asking questions until you are completely satisfied you have all the facts, and that includes information about your medications and treatments.
  • Write down the things you need to remember. Take notes about home care, medication side effects, treatment options and information about your condition. This information may come in handy later if you become confused about your treatment or can't recall something the doctor said.
  • Have a family member or friend go with you. If you're comfortable with the idea, a friend or family member can help you remember questions and can take notes as well.
  • Ask for a copy of lab results. "People should be asking to be given their lab tests," Leyden says. "Whether sent in the mail, or given to them at the appointment."

 

After Your Appointment

Being a good patient doesn't end when your appointment does. In fact, your job is just beginning. Here are a few things to keep in mind post-appointment.

 

  • Pay attention to any changes in your symptoms or conditions after you start a new treatment or medication. The first few hours or days, be very aware of how you feel and be aware of the side effects of your mediation. Report any problems to your doctor immediately.
  • Complete your medication a prescribed. Don't stop taking it if you begin to feel better; this could cause a relapse in your symptoms.
  • If you have a chronic condition, make sure you learn how to treat it. Know what the treatment entails, and keep yourself on track.

 

The Most Important Step

Leyden wants patients to remember one point above all others when it comes to protecting their own health. "I think one of the biggest issues for consumers to know is they have the right to ask for the information, and then to ask for it. That medical record is theirs. No one owns it but them," she says. "All of the treatment providers are members of the health care team, along with the family. Patients need to not feel like they are following orders, but that they are in charge of their treatment plan."