Your doctor brings experience and specialized knowledge to the exam room, but you don’t come empty handed. As the subject of your health care, your input is indispensable. Not that long ago, “doctor knows best” was the norm in American health care. Now patient-centered care is growing in popularity, and many consumers see themselves as active players when they visit their doctors. Within each of these mindsets, there’s room for high-quality health care and satisfied patients. The common thread is empowerment.
What is patient empowerment?
Being an empowered patient means different things to different people. Some prefer giving their doctor complete control in directing their care, while others want a more collaborative approach to medical decision making.
“Empowerment is knowing who you are, what you want and then getting it,” says Linda Adler, founder of Pathfinders Medical, a patient advocacy group based in Palo Alto, California.
For many patients, being empowered means being engaged. Research indicates that patients who are engaged in managing their health care have better outcomes— with lower costs. Although it might not be the right solution for everyone, Adler says, the formula for patient engagement is prescriptive:
1. Get informed about your health.
Now more than ever, we have access to a variety of health information. But access to information isn’t enough— we have to understand it. Health literacy means understanding your conditions, prognoses and treatment options, and it takes more than clicking on an article seen on social media. Start by consulting reliable sources, such as the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. Ask your doctor for additional resources.
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You can also maintain copies of your medical records. Patients with access to their medical records often report feeling more informed about and involved in their care. Access to these records lets you see what your doctor sees, and getting them is easier than ever with the implementation of electronic health records (EHR) systems. Whether you view them online through a patient portal or whether you request paper copies, review them from time to time for errors.
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2. Choose your health insurance plan carefully and manage your costs.
Some health care costs are unavoidable, but choosing a health insurance plan that fits your needs will help you manage your expenses. For instance, a plan with a higher premium and lower deductible makes more sense for someone with a chronic condition, while a high deductible plan with a lower monthly premium could save a healthy person bundles.
Beyond your plan choice, consider other factors that can affect how much you pay for care:
● Stick with in-network medical providers.
● Choose generic medicine when available.
● Open a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA) to set aside pretax dollars for medical expenses.
● Review your medical bills for errors, and don’t be afraid to negotiate balances with medical providers.
3. Communicate effectively.
Understanding and playing a role in your health care requires you to be vocal. Make sure your doctor understands you want to be included in making decisions. Ask questions and spell out clearly what you need to feel comfortable. Making a list of your symptoms and questions before your appointment can set the stage for an effective conversation.
Remember that communication is a two-way street, and although being assertive about your health care needs is important, your doctor has valuable information to pass along.
When empowerment means something else
Engagement is the first step to empowerment for many patients, but that approach isn’t right for everyone, Adler says.
“Not everyone wants to be engaged,” she says. “For many, simply saying who you are and what you want is empowerment.”
Patients who prefer the “doctor knows best” model, for example, might see empowerment as finding a medical team to which they can relinquish control. For them, and often for people with chronic conditions, there is such a thing as too much information and too much control. In these cases, having family or friends to support the health care process, or even a patient advocate, can help relieve some of the burden.
Long before boosting your medical literacy and sharpening your doctor-patient communication skills, figure out what you want to get out of your medical care and how you define empowerment. Health care satisfaction depends on knowing your personal preferences and fulfilling those needs.