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How to Take Charge of Your Medical Care

By Elizabeth Yuko
New York Times nyt.com

Walking into a doctor's office or hospital can be intimidating. But when you go armed with the right tools and frame of mind, you can walk out of that appointment or hospital stay feeling more confident and satisfied. Learn how to ask your questions, either for yourself or a loved one, figure out your various medical options and determine the best course of action. Just having that knowledge in your pocket can help you feel better.

When You’re Healthy

It can be hard to think about dealing with a medical emergency when you are well, but the things you do now can really pay off later.


As much as we don’t want to think about the end of our own lives, it’s a good idea to get a head start while you’re still relatively young and in good health. Don’t just assume your partner or family can read your mind about whether or not you’d want to be put on a feeding tube or be resuscitated if something went wrong. Yes, that means having an advance care directive on hand. This also means appointing a proxy granting him or her power-of-attorney to make your medical decisions if you’re not able to do so.

If you are fortunate enough to have some form of health insurance, always have your current policy information handy and organized in case you need it. In fact, keep it in an easily accessible folder, along with an updated list of all the medications you’re taking — prescribed, over-the-counter and supplements — and a record of your personal and family medical history. Regardless of whether you’re going to see your general practitioner about a viral infection or end up in the E.R. with a broken foot, you’re going to be asked about your medical history, so it’s best to come with as much detail as possible


In the United States, we have various sources setting forth our rights as patients. HIPAA, for example, guarantees on a federal level a patient’s right to get a copy of his medical records, as well as the right to keep them private. There is also the Patient’s Bill of Rights that is part of the Affordable Care Act, though it primarily deals with insurance-specific rights, rather than general health care. Some states, like New York, do have a Patients’ Bill of Rights which grants additional protections, like receiving an itemized bill and explanation of all charges, as well as a right to get emergency care if you need it, meaning that hospitals are not permitted to turn away a patient requiring emergency care, regardless of where they live and regardless of whether they can pay the bill. In addition, some organizations, like the American Hospital Association, have their own guidelines outlining the rights of patients.

All patients also have the right of informed consent, meaning that if you require any sort of treatment or procedure, your physician should explain what will happen to you in a way you understand, which allows you to make an educated decision. Being familiar with informed consent before needing medical treatment can help you achieve the best outcome possible.


It’s important to stay on top of your health, so schedule regular check-ups to ensure everything is in working order. If you live somewhere with numerous options for medical care, you’ll have the task of finding and then selecting a doctor who best serves your needs. This is true when dealing with your physical as well as a mental health. Once you’re at the appointment, make the most of your time with your doctor, by asking any questions you may have about your body and health, and requesting a full blood test workup.

Seeing a Medical Professional

Being a patient is stressful. These strategies will keep your mind clearer when you are dealing with a medical diagnosis.


To ensure you have the best possible experience with your doctor, it’s best to come prepared. Ideally, you’ll already have your medical history and list of current medications ready to go, but there are a few more steps that could make your visit even more productive.

  • Set goals of what you’d like to address with your doctor.
  • Make a list of all your symptoms and concerns about your health scare.
  • Try not to overdo internet research before you get to the doctor’s office.
  • Keep in mind that your doctor is only human, and has probably worked a long day. Advocate for yourself, but also be respectful of your medical team and their time.

We’re taught to listen to what the doctor says, and while in most cases that’s a good idea, in order to be our own advocates, we also have to speak up and ask questions. Remember: There is no such thing as a stupid question. If something comes up that you hadn’t considered, ask about it. If you don’t understand something, say so. This includes having the doctor explain any complex medical terminology.

But direct your questions appropriately.

  • Questions about scheduling appointments? Ask the front desk.
  • Getting ready for a hospital stay? Ask the nurse (not the doctor) about what clothes to bring. 
  • Have a specific medical questions about your diagnosis or treatment? Ask your doctor. Chances are you’ll come up with additional questions as soon as you leave the appointment. Ask the doctor or nurse for the best way to contact them with these follow-up queries. 

When you’re in the doctor’s office because of a health problem, you may feel anxious or rushed — either way, it’s helpful to record the answers to the questions you ask your medical team, as well as the other information they give you. Bring paper to your appointment (or if you forget it or a pen, just ask the receptionist) to take notes of everything that is said during the appointment. If you’d feel more comfortable having an audio recording of the appointment, ask your doctor if you have their consent to record the office visit. There’s no need to purchase any equipment: most smartphones come with a free recording app, like Voice Memo. Depending on the nature of the appointment, it may be helpful to have a family member, friend or partner either go with you for a second set of ears, or call in on speakerphone so they can hear and take notes on everything being discussed.


A doctor’s appointment should feel like a conversation, and it’s important for both you and your physician that your voice is heard. Asking questions is one thing, but it’s also necessary to speak up when you don’t think you’re being heard or understood. There is no rule saying that the doctor’s opinion is the be-all and end-all. They are capable of making mistakes or, in some cases, simply ignoring patients and their concerns, which can be especially true when the patients are women or people of color. Therefore, it’s very important that you leave the appointment believing that your doctor is taking your pain seriously.

Be as specific about your symptoms as possible. The more information you’re able to provide to your medical team, the better your chances are of getting an accurate diagnosis. If the doctor is still being dismissive, calmly and respectfully express your concerns, and let them know that you don’t feel as though you’re being fully heard. If this doesn’t work, it may be time to change doctors or get a second opinion.


If the doctor ends up making a diagnosis in the appointment and you don’t understand what it is or what it means, feel free to ask additional questions. Don’t hesitate to ask the doctor to refrain from using medical jargon when explaining what is happening to you. Some medical professionals will even draw pictures or diagrams to help illustrate exactly what is going on in your body. If you’d like more information than the doctor is able to provide during the appointment, ask them where you can read more about the condition. This way, they’ll point you to a reputable book or website, so if you’re going online for information, it will be accurate. You can also ask if there are any online resource groups for people with the condition. 

Along with your diagnosis, it’s important that you also understand how the doctor plans to treat your condition. Don’t leave until you know the plan.

Making decisions regarding your health care or treatment can be difficult.

  • If you are faced with having to choose from multiple options, you can ask to speak with a bioethicist or counselor. While not all medical facilities have them on staff, your medical team should be able to point you in the direction of someone who can help walk you through the decision-making process. 
  • Make a list of the risks and benefits of each option, taking into consideration what is best for treating your current medical issue, as well as what would be best for your health in the long run.
  • Once you understand your diagnosis and treatment plan, it may be helpful to let trusted family members or friends know that you’re sick so they are aware and can check in periodically. You can also ask them to weigh in on the decision you have to make regarding your treatment if you’d like additional opinions.

Some medical conditions have routine, straightforward treatment procedures. Other times, there are multiple ways to treat a patient, and it can be difficult to determine which option would be most beneficial. That may mean it’s time to get a second opinion. Moreover, if your doctor recommends a procedure that is invasive or your diagnosis is severe, that’s another good time to get a second opinion. This is true for diagnoses and treatment for both your physical and mental health. Doctors should not be offended if you ask for a second opinion, and may even recommend other physicians they trust. 

When it comes to selecting a doctor for a second (or even first) opinion, don’t be afraid to shop around. If you’re going in for surgery, ask potential surgeons how frequently they perform a specific procedure. Even if it’s something basic that you assume all doctors know how to do, ask if the procedure is a regular part of their practice. 

During a Hospital Stay

Advocating for yourself while in the hospital requires additional considerations and planning.


When you’re admitted to the hospital, your focus should be on getting the treatment you need and healing, but that can be challenging if you’re worried about how you’re going to pay for it. Even if you are fortunate enough to have health insurance, that doesn’t mean that all of the members of your medical team — which may include out-of-network specialists — are covered by your plan. Bills can add up quickly over a multiple-day (or week) stay. Keep in mind that in addition to the cost of your medical care, your bill will likely include  administrative fees that can significantly increase the cost of your hospitalization. If you have questions or are confused about your insurance or payment process, you can ask to speak with someone on the hospital staff who specializes in billing.


Depending on the condition that put you in the hospital, you may be assigned a team of medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, physical therapists, physicians’ assistants and social workers.

  • Take the time to learn each of their names — write them down if it helps. Caregiving can be a very intimate act, so developing a rapport with your medical team — especially the nurses who oversee your day-to-day care — is important. 
  • Don’t forget about the nonmedical personnel, like the environmental services staff, who are in charge of disinfecting your room and potentially other tasks like changing your linens or bringing fresh towels. They are an essential part of your care, can be instrumental in getting you basic necessities and helping with logistics, like fixing a broken TV or getting an extra chair for visitors.

It’s your body, and you should know what’s happening to it. If there’s something you’re unsure about or don’t understand, never hesitate to ask. Hospital stays can be particularly tricky because patients interact with many people during a hospital stay and you may hear conflicting advice or information. For instance, a doctor who only sees you once a day may have one opinion on your treatment, while a nurse who spends long shifts monitoring your vital signs may have a different suggestion. Either way, keep asking questions to ensure you’re doing what’s best for your health, recovery and treatment. While you’re at it, continue to write down the answers. It may be helpful to keep a notebook next to your bed so you can record your questions and the answers, and keep a journal of your progress, treatment and notes from your medical team.


Before you are released from the hospital, doctors and nurses should provide you with a discharge plan. Your medical team should walk you through any specific instructions you should follow once you are discharged. If this doesn’t happen, you as the patient should initiate the conversation:

  • What medications do you need to take? When? How long?
  • Do you have to do physical therapy? 
  • Do nurses or health care providers make home visits?
  • What should you do if something goes wrong? 

Start by assembling your team of people who can assist with your care once you’re home. Depending on your needs, you should have a list of dependable caregivers or people to help with different facets of your recovery, like driving you to and from follow-up appointments, preparing meals, helping you sort out medications, and checking in on your mental health.

Need help caring for a spouse or parent? Heritage Senior Care can provide custom care. Call (800) 562-2734

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