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Taking an Active Role in Your Health Care

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 21st 2007

Several articles have been in the news lately about the need to assume a more active role in our health care. We live in a interesting time; we have access to a wealth of information about medical conditions via the Internet and health information sites such as Mental Help Net. Medical technology has advanced to the point that there are often a dizzying array of medicines and treatment options for different conditions. While the time we spend with health care providers is not decreasing (this is a popular misconception not supported by research), the average visit with a general or family physician lasts only 18.7 minutes. Preparing for and actively participating in those visits can help make the most of those precious minutes.

Taking an active role in health care situations may not come easy. Many (particularly older adults) find that questioning a doctor or other health care provider is tantamount to challenging their authority, and is inappropriate and disrespectful. Psychologist Suzanne Miller, has classified our health care behaviors into two categories, suggesting that we are either "blunters" (those who have little interest in seeking out information, preferring instead to leave all decisions up to the health care professional) or "monitors" (those who seek out as much information as possible).

The best approach is probably a middle ground between the blunter and monitor. Burying our head in the sand and ignoring our situation is not appropriate- surveys suggest that we will receive better care if we are actively involved. Exerting some control over our situations can also positively benefit our stress levels and subsequent mental and physical health. However, it is also inappropriate to diagnose and treat ourselves. Reading 15 articles on the Internet and talking to a few people with depression is no substitute for seeing a expert psychiatrist, psychologist, or other clinician who has spent numerous years learning about and treating this condition. Similarly, obsessively reading hundreds of articles, or focusing on descriptions of highly unlikely, worse case scenarios can fuel anxiety and worry.

Regardless of whether you are a blunter or a monitor, the following tips can help you take a more active role in your health care:

  1. Identify specific issues to discuss with your health care provider before the visit.

  2. Bring a list of questions, symptoms, and current medications with you to the visit.

  3. Make sure to bring up your list from #2 during the visit!

  4. Ask questions about your diagnosis, tests, procedures, when to make another appointment, and what to monitor to determine whether your condition is getting better or worse.

  5. Ask for clarification if you don't understand terms, rationales for decisions, medication instructions, etc.

  6. Before leaving, briefly restate the outcome of the visit as you understand it. "Do I have this correct? My diagnosis is X, and I will be doing X procedure to treat it as well as taking X medication in this way. I am to call you if I notice any changes in X and I will see you in X months."

  7. WRITE THE INFORMATION DOWN during the visit or before you leave. If you are uncomfortable with any or all of the above, find a trusted person to go with you to the visit who can help you out.

  8. Particularly in the case of a complicated diagnosis or life-threatening illness, consider getting a second opinion and conducting a little research to determine the best course of treatment for you.

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