How to advocate for yourself as a patient to get the care you deserve

Your healthcare provider is an expert in their field, but you’ve spent a lifetime in your body. So when it comes to your health, you’re an expert too. You not only have a right to play an active role in your care, doing so can help you achieve better health outcomes.  

But, understandably, it’s not always easy to feel empowered to advocate for yourself when sitting in a provider’s office. The goal here is for you to be able to have a say in your care options, to feel like your provider is really hearing your wants and needs, and to be sure you’re making informed decisions that are best for you and your family. Ultimately, you are the decision-maker when it comes to your care. Here are a few ways to ensure that you can work alongside your provider and act as an advocate for your own best care.

Share your knowledge and preferences

Your healthcare provider — whether they’re a doctor, nurse, or midwife — is a medical expert, but you have knowledge to share too. You know your health history, you know what’s normal for you and what’s not, and you know what sort of recommendations for care you prefer. This is all important information that can help your provider give you the best care possible. When your provider makes a recommendation or offers various care options, are you comfortable with them? Do you want to talk about the risks and benefits of certain treatment options? Alternative options? Are you worried about cost or invasiveness? Have an honest discussion with your provider so that they can help you consider all your options. 

Get the info you need to make informed choices

Using the acronym BRAIN can be a helpful tool for you to make informed choices about your care whenever a medical intervention is discussed. 

B – What are the benefits of this intervention for me

R – Does this intervention present any risks for me? If so, what are they? 

A – Are there any alternatives to this intervention? 

I – What is my intuition or gut telling me (based on the information provided)? 

N – What if I said “no” or “not now” and we did nothing

Getting answers to these questions can help you have the information you need to make empowered choices that are right for you. 

Speak up and ask as many questions as you need to

It’s part of your provider’s job to listen to your preferences and help you understand your health and care options. Your provider should listen to your wants and needs in a way that is caring and respectful. They should speak in plain language, not confusing medical jargon. If you feel like you’re not being heard or taken seriously — and certainly if you feel you’re being discriminated against based on your race, religion, weight, age, sexual preference, or anything else —  it’s important to speak up. 

This isn’t always an easy thing to do, and it’s normal to have complicated feelings if you have to follow up with a provider in this way — you might feel hesitant to seem like a bother, embarrassed to speak up, or frustrated or angry if you think you’re not being heard or taken seriously. And all of this can be even more challenging if you’re sick. Even if it’s challenging, speak up. You have every right to, for example, ask your provider to note a concern you have in your chart. You can also ask as many questions as you need to — ask your provider to clarify if you don’t fully understand something they’ve said, if you need further explanation, or if you have follow-up questions. Your provider might not know everything, but that’s why adding your perspective and input is so important. Open and honest communication will help you have a great experience and improved outcomes. 

Get additional support 

Some people are comfortable or experienced advocating for themselves in these ways, and others find it incredibly challenging. Regardless of how you feel, one thing that can help make it easier for everyone is calling in some support. This might mean bringing a partner, a family member, or a friend to your provider appointment with you. Or, for example, if you’re working with a postpartum doula, it might mean bringing them along with you. Having someone who you know is there to support you can help you have strength in numbers. That person can back you up, take notes for you, help you ask questions, and ensure that your wants are heard and your needs are met. It can be meaningful to let that support person know in advance of going to an appointment with you how you would best like to be supported.

You can also ask for further support at your healthcare facility. If you’re having a tough time working comfortably with your provider, you may be able to rely on another staff member, like a nurse or medical assistant, for the help you need. You could ask them, for example, to tell your provider to pronounce your name correctly if they haven’t been doing so. And many hospitals have risk management teams if you need a safe space to file a complaint. You can also ask for accessible resources that support your needs. Healthcare facilities should have resources available for folks with disabilities, like hearing, vision, or cognitive impairments. Resources should be also available to you in languages other than English. You deserve support, so always ask for what you need. 

Know if it’s a good fit, or if it’s time to move on

Ideally, you should be working with a provider who takes you and your health concerns seriously, who treats you with respect, and who you feel you can trust. Every once in a while, it’s worth checking in with yourself to make sure you feel like you’re working with a good partner in your care. Are you comfortable with the care and options being provided to you? Hopefully the answer is a resounding yes, but if you just don’t feel like you’re being heard — or worse, if you’re feeling disrespected, discriminated against, or dismissed — then it could be time to get a second opinion or find a new healthcare provider.


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