Be the leader of your own healthcare

Be the leader of your own healthcare

Loretta Green-Williams, age 70, has always had a high tolerance for pain. But when she began experiencing excruciating pain in her legs along with indigestion, she grew worried and scheduled an appointment with her primary care practitioner (PCP). Hoping for a full medical evaluation to get to the root cause of her health issues, Loretta was dismayed when her doctor – without even examining her or running any tests – diagnosed her with Vitamin D deficiency. 

After months of following the recommended treatment, Loretta’s condition only worsened. Growing frustrated with the lack of guidance from her PCP, Loretta sought out the expertise of a cardiologist, who uncovered an untreated heart condition and a bacterial stomach ulcer that, if left untreated, could have serious health implications. The Ibuprofen she had been prescribed was only making the ulcer worse. She was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance for immediate treatment. 

Sadly, Loretta’s situation is not unique. She felt that her doctor wasn’t really listening and dismissed her symptoms given her age. 

Ageism is an all-too-common problem in healthcare when patients face stereotypes, assumptions and preconceptions connected to their age that result in being treated differently. Age bias can show up in the way healthcare providers talk to their patients, the degree to which they listen, the range of diagnostic tests they offer and the scope of treatments they are willing to make available. A widely-cited study published nearly a decade ago found nearly 1 in 5 American adults experience age-related discrimination in healthcare settings. Unfortunately, the issue persists today.

Finding your voice in any situation can be intimidating – especially when you’re talking to your doctor about your health status, a new diagnosis or treatment options. Many people, especially older adults, may be reluctant to ask questions, seek clarification or voice concerns, which can lead to feeling disrespected, being marginalized, and not having a say in their own healthcare. At worst, this can also lead to missed diagnoses or incorrect treatment, as Loretta experienced.

What does it mean to be your own advocate?

All of us are unique individuals, each with goals, values and preferences that influence our choices and how we want to receive care. Adults 65 and older, in particular, have a unique set of physical, mental health, and social care needs that can change over time. It can be challenging to navigate our complex healthcare system and manage all of the information and decisions that come your way. 

Knowing how to be your own advocate, which involves taking an active role in your health and medical care needs, can help you navigate the system more easily. It means that you have taken time to think through your health goals and feel empowered to speak up with your personal questions, needs, concerns, and preferences – especially when something doesn’t sound or feel right. 

Communication is key

The foundation for any good relationship – whether it's with your children, spouse, friends, or healthcare providers – is good communication. In Loretta’s case, she suffered for more than a year because her doctor simply was not listening to her. 

When asked what could have been done differently, Loretta says, “I just wanted to be heard. That incident made me more vocal about my health than ever. And I vowed that I would live a long time because from now on, I will be educating myself and doing my own research.”

As her own advocate, Loretta has learned how to be direct about what she thinks she may need in order to manage her own health. Active participation in your care can go a long way toward fostering better communication with providers and understanding of sometimes complicated diagnoses. 

A leader in your own care

For older adults, being a leader in your own care is crucial in maintaining your continued well-being. Take time to understand your care plan, ask questions to learn more, and even consider writing questions down ahead of time and bringing that list to your appointment. If you feel unsure about something discussed, ask your healthcare provider to clarify it.  

Carol Lowe, now retired, is a self-described ‘fussy patient’ with a complex medical history, and has a distinct point of view on who should support her healthcare needs and the types of therapies prescribed. After suffering the consequences of a doctor who made glaring errors in her medical care, Carol decided that it was time to step up and be a leader in her own care. Drawing on her degree in holistic nutrition and an interest in alternative medicine – including acupuncture, homeopathy and Eastern medicine – Carol began her own research to better understand her health conditions and potential medication interactions. 

After searching for a new primary care provider that would respect her goals, values and preferences as a patient, including her interest in holistic and alternative medicine, Carol found all of that and more in her dedicated Patina team. For the first time in a long time, Carol says that she feels cared for, appreciates that her values and preferences are being listened to, and states that she has the ear of her primary care practitioner (PCP).  

“I am thrilled that my Patina care team, including my PCP Michelle (Lu), respects my healthcare preferences and takes time to listen and discuss things that are important to me,” said Carol. “In this case, I wanted a more natural approach to my care and any medication prescribed. The team allows me to bring my own research to appointments and has worked to incorporate homeopathic therapies that address my symptoms.” 

As a result of her experiences, Carol urges older adults to “...feel empowered to speak up for themselves, take responsibility for their health, and present what is happening to a doctor – because the only person who can listen to their own body is the patient.” 

Tips for success 

Learning how to effectively engage with doctors and other healthcare providers takes some planning and practice. 

Michelle Lu, a primary care nurse practitioner at Patina, says, “Oftentimes, patients hold back from asking questions or challenging the decisions of their doctors for fear of being labeled a ‘difficult patient.’ But it’s actually the opposite – your provider should welcome your questions and inputs, because it’s your body and no one other than you knows what’s best for it.” 

Here are some tips about being your own healthcare advocate that have helped people like Loretta and Carol navigate the often complex system: 

  • Be informed and educate yourself about your health conditions, medications, treatments, and other concerns. Understand your healthcare rights and responsibilities and attend visits armed with information in advance. 

  • Feel empowered to take ownership of your health by making informed choices and advocating for your needs. Trust your instincts and voice concerns if something doesn't feel right. And don’t worry about challenging your doctor – you should always feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, expressing concerns, and sharing opinions. 

  • Clearly communicate with your healthcare providers, and be sure to share your goals, values and preferences with respect to what’s important to you, e.g., use of prescription medications, attitudes toward homeopathic or holistic medicines, and how and where you’d like to receive treatment (or not).

  • Get comfortable ‘saying no’ to something your healthcare provider suggests or recommends, e.g., continuing therapy or care.

  • Articulate your priorities by discussing what’s most meaningful to you and how these priorities affect care plans and decisions. Only you can decide what’s most important.

  • Acknowledge tradeoffs that may influence care choices, such as if and how care is received, where care is received, lifestyle and quality of life considerations, and more.

  • Keep records of your medical history, including diagnoses, treatments, test results, and medications. This information can help you and your healthcare providers make informed decisions. And, take notes during discussions to reference in future visits with your PCP or other specialists.

  • Seek second opinions. Don't hesitate to seek second opinions or explore alternative treatment options if you have concerns about your diagnosis or treatment plan. At worst, they’ll validate the path you’re on. At best, they may offer other options that point to better outcomes or better align with your preferences.

  • Follow through with recommended treatments, appointments, and other care guidance after your visit. Stay engaged in your healthcare journey and monitor your progress.

You’re in charge

As an older adult, being your own healthcare advocate is essential for promoting your overall health, well-being, and quality of life. It empowers you to play an active role in decision-making, communication, and accessing the care and support you need to age independently and live life on your own terms. 

Are you looking to establish a relationship with a PCP who will support you in your goals to serve as a leader in your own care? Learn how Patina’s approach to primary care puts patients at the center of their own health journey with a dedicated team focused on your specific values, goals and preferences. You can also see what care as a Patina patient is like in this short video. Give us a call at (855) 478-8310 if you’d like to hear more – we love meeting new patients!