From The Desk of Josh Gitalis

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The doctor-patient relationship can be tricky to navigate, especially if you are referred to a new specialist for a specific health problem or if you have trouble finding a doctor who is a good fit for your health needs. Whether you choose to see a Western medical doctor or a holistic health practitioner, it’s important to be your own health advocate.

Few people are going to care about your health as much as you do – but you may feel like you are imposing on your health practitioner or doctor with excessive questions or if you disagree with their approach. In some situations, time may be scarce with less than 10 minutes to address your concerns, making it challenging to delve into a health problem in depth.

It’s natural for us to have questions about our health. ‘Why’ is a question that every kid discovers at some point in their lives and then realizes that it is the holy grail of annoyance. I was guilty of the “why bug” in my youth and it’s something I see in my own son. I still have constant feelings of inquiry, but as an adult that manifests in a much more diplomatic way.

We shouldn’t feel shy about asking questions of being our own health advocate. Some doctors and health practitioners are accustomed to more educated and interested patients, while others unfortunately may prefer to tell people what to do and handle questions abruptly. It’s vital to speak up for yourself as much as you can!

The Importance of Communication, Patient Involvement and a Good Doctor-Patient Relationship

As a functional nutrition practitioner, my role with my clients is to teach, not impose orders. I always welcome questions and discussion, as this leads to better compliance and often better health outcomes for the people I work with.

Doctor-patient communication is important. This includes straightforward explanations from doctors and involved, active questions on the part of patients. Research shows that good doctor-patient communication can lead to better health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, less anxiety and higher quality of life.

The onus doesn’t lie solely on the doctor to be a good communicator – it’s equally imperative that patients be involved and engaged in their own health care and decision-making. Engaging in your own health care can lead to higher self-esteem, independence and feelings of empowerment, as well as lead to much better health outcomes.

This makes a lot of sense, right? If you understand your health situation, feel listened to and have your questions answered, you’re probably going to feel confident following your health practitioner’s instructions.

The research shows this, too – when patients participate in their own health care and engage with their doctors, they are more likely to stick to treatment plans (whether that involves medication, diet or lifestyle changes) and subsequently have better outcomes. This has been shown to be relevant in a variety of health conditions, but especially mental health disorders like depression. Patients who actively participate in their own mental health care are more likely to adhere to recommended treatments and medications.

How to Be Your Own Health Advocate

Being aware of your own health situation and asking your doctor the right questions could prevent medical mistakes. While you don’t need to be a medical expert, you can ask probing questions that will help you understand your condition or disease better, which will help you feel equipped to handle your health and wellbeing.

I often advise my clients on what questions to ask their doctor. Here are a few tips for you to consider the next time you’re at the doctor’s office to help you be a better health advocate.

Be Prepared

In most cases you won’t have a lot of time to spend with your doctor, so it’s best to use that time wisely. Come prepared with questions – write them down on paper or use a notes function on your phone so you can remember what you want to ask.

Researching health conditions can be challenging, but it’s worth doing some reading on some reputable sites like Pubmed or Science Daily to discover the latest news – this is most helpful if you already have a diagnosed condition or chronic problem you are familiar with.

If you have no idea what’s wrong with you or what your symptoms mean, googling can become a frightening vortex. In this case, a simple question like “What do you think are the factors that might contribute to how I am feeling?” can be a good starting point.

Best Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If your doctor gives you a prescription, ask:

  • What is the drug for?
  • How is it going to help me?
  • How does it work?
  • How long am I going to be on it for?
  • What are the side effects?

If your doctor requisitions a lab test, ask:

  • What is this test for?
  • What information will it provide us with?
  • Will the information gathered from these test change your clinical decisions?
  • Is it necessary and will it cause any harm?
  • Is there anything I can do right now that might help me?

Ask for Your Medical Records

You are entitled to a copy of your medical records. In many places around the world, there are online sites where you can access certain tests and bloodwork, whereas other results may go straight to your doctor. Don’t feel shy about asking for a copy of your medical tests.

Keeping copies of your medical records allows you to feel empowered, track your progress, and understand your treatments.

Be Kind and Respectful

The relationship you have with your health care provider needs to be collaborative and respectful. You want to be a strong advocate for your care, and be firm if needed, but don’t go into the office with a combative attitude. That can easily sour your relationship.

And it goes both ways – expect your doctor to be respectful, too.

Take Someone With You to Appointments, if Possible

Due to busy schedules, having a friend or family member accompany you to the doctor isn’t always possible. However, if you can, taking someone with you to an appointment to be an extra pair of ears is helpful, especially if you are feeling nervous or confused. Another person may hear or understand things that you don’t, or come up with questions you may not have considered. Plus, if someone you live with attends your appointment they will have a fuller understanding of your health needs and can better support you.

You don’t need to stay up all night studying to be involved in your health care or be your own best health advocate. Be proactive, not reactive, and you’re more likely to reap the benefits.