Self advocacy is often a trial by error skill that we learn out of necessity with chronic illness. Each encounter with a medical provider may be different and can be a teaching opportunity for us. Studies have shown that the more someone is motivated to be involved in their healthcare, the better health outcomes a person has. Self advocacy quite literally can make the difference in better or poorer health.
I've been fortunate to be able to learn from my mother as I watched how she managed not only her own health with Familial Adenomatous Polyposis but also how she managed my medical appointments when I was a child and teen with the same health issues. I watched her in her dealings not only with medical providers but also the insurance and medical supply companies. My mother is a fierce advocate and I learned a lot over the years from her. Here are my best practices that I use for myself for my medical care. The first best thing one can do is be armed with information in advance of your medical appointment. I research my symptoms and my health conditions on a regular basis and I gather information from a variety of sources - health websites, medical studies, medical communities, and medical providers I personally know.
Knowing about one's health conditions and symptoms is vital not only for personal knowledge and self-advocacy but also to improve coping and adjustment to health issues. Giving up control of one's healthcare management to providers without any input or understanding of health conditions and treatments allows for opportunities for treatment options to be missed.
Gathering information from various sources increases the identification of possible health conditions causing new or worsening symptoms, alternative treatment options that haven't been tried yet, and different medical tests to request.
For instance, I abruptly started having chronic nausea in 2015 after a hospitalization. The standard treatments of oral Zofran or Phenergan were not effective in controlling my nausea. I researched other medications and remedies for controlling nausea and I asked my online medical communities what has worked for others with chronic nausea. After a lot of trial and error and trying various over the counter and prescription options with my doctor, I was able to effectively control my chronic nausea with Compazine and peppermint oil. If I hadn't researched other options and requested my doctor to prescribe medications I was requesting, I wouldn't have been able to find a tolerable solution to my nausea management. I do the same with requesting medical tests and procedures to be conducted when I'm having a new or worsening symptom - whether that's a lab test or procedure such as a scope or imaging test.
- Specialists vs. Primary Care
For appropriate care to be provided, it is crucial to be followed by the appropriate type of doctor for the condition requiring evaluation and treatment. Primary Care doctors are a great place to start for evaluation but if it is a condition outside of general care, we need to be seen by a Specialist for that condition or part of the body. Primary Care doctors have a general understanding of the body whereas Specialists specialize in specific conditions and parts of the body.
When seeking the care of a specialist there are several ways to find a specialist you're looking for. Such as obtaining recommendations or referrals from your existing doctor(s), requesting a list of Specialists from your insurance plan, recommendations from other patients in the chronic illness community, and online medical databases that also provide reviews. Depending on the condition and one's area, some patients choose to be seen by a Specialist outside of their state.
I am under the care of 7 Specialists and none of these issues should be managed by a Primary Care doctor, they require the care of Specialists:
- Gastroenterologist manages my GI rare diseases and everything that comes with them and the GI organs I'm missing as a result. He monitors my lab values regularly, adjusts medications as needed, completes my upper and lower scopes on a regular basis, monitors my liver, etc.
- Hematologist manages my anemia. While my GI Specialist is able to manage my anemia through oral medication and iron infusions/transfusions as needed, a Hematologist specializes in blood disorders and has an even better understanding of my anemia than my GI specialist.
- Nephrologist monitors my kidney. I have renal cysts that she monitors via ultrasound annually, treats my UTIs, and monitors my lab values regularly. She manages my Vitamin D. While my GI Specialist is able to manage my Vitamin D levels and medication, Vitamin D and the kidneys are intertwined providing my Nephrologist a better understanding of this connection.
- Neurologist manages my Abdominal Migraine. Once I obtained a neurological disorder diagnosis, my Neurologist began managing my medications to treat the Abdominal Migraine including the pain and nausea that it causes. Previously, my GI specialist was ordering my Lyrica and nausea medications when we believed it was solely a GI issue.
- Endocrinologist monitors my thyroid. With FAP, a yearly ultrasound of the thyroid is needed to monitor for cancer risks. She also monitors my thyroid via labs as well.
- Gynecologist not only monitors my reproductive health but she also monitors my hormones to ensure my estrogen is within range and not worsening my Abdominal Migraine. My organs are adhered to my abdominal wall and pelvis by scar tissue and I have a large ovarian cyst, she monitors these issues to determine if either are attributing or worsening my pain levels and to treat the issues as indicated.
- Dermatologist monitors and treats any skin issues I have. While I don't require regular appointments at this time, she has treated me for cysts and scars from my abdominal surgeries that weren't healing.
- Request and Review Medical Records
Obtain copies of all of your medical tests and procedures including history and physicals. Request the images of any imaging tests done. While the majority of people aren't able to read their own imaging disks, it can be helpful to have them on hand in case a future provider would like to see the images. Review your medical records, compare them to previous records, and ask questions to your providers about any concerns or questions you have in your records and test results. Keep a copy of your medical records in a folder to take with you to doctor appointments, especially with new providers.
Keep track of your health symptoms and any changes to them in detail so that you can accurately and fully discuss your symptoms with your provider.
- What the symptoms are and what they feel like
- When they started, changed, or stopped
- Duration of symptoms
- What affects the symptoms - medications, foods, etc
- Keep a List of Everything to Discuss at Appointments
Medical appointments can easily veer off track from how you anticipate they'll go and it can be easy to accidently leave out information or questions. To stay on track with your concerns and questions, keep a list of everything you want to discuss in your medical appointment - questions, symptoms, concerns, treatment or test requests, etc. Take with you any applicable medical records or research to your appointment with your list of things to discuss.
- Create Online Accounts with Medical Providers
The easiest way to communicate with your doctors is to create online accounts. This is easier for you and for them. This saves you time waiting on hold and will reduce your wait time for a response. It is much faster for a provider to read your question or concern and reply to you than to try to reach you via phone. Some providers have online portals but don't check them as regularly as others. Ask your provider what their process is with the online portals. If you have sent a message and not received a response back within a week, call the office.
Another benefit of the online portals is I receive electronic copies of all my labs, office visit summaries, medical procedures and tests that are completed with my lab and hospital system. I can also request records through my hospital online portal without having to call or fax a request.
- Maintain Regular Communication with Providers
If you have a change in health or a concern and don't contact your doctor in between your appointments, they will assume everything is stable. For your doctor to best provide care, it is essential to maintain regular communication with providers to alert them of any health changes, concerns, or questions you have. They are unable to help you if they don't know something has changed in between appointments.
The easiest way to maintain communication is via online patient portals, however, calling the office remains better than waiting until your next appointment when there's an issue.
My GI specialist says I use my online portal more than any other patient of his!
- Avoid HMO Insurance Plans
HMO insurance plans significantly reduce your medical care freedom by requiring referrals to see other doctors and also have a smaller in-network selection of providers. If at all possible, choose an insurance plan (i.e. PPO) that doesn't require referrals. Having the freedom to schedule your own appointments with any in-network doctor saves you valuable time, stress, and increases your ability to access medical care.
As a child, when I started having chronic abdominal pain, my parents had an HMO plan. A referral to a GI specialist was required by the PCP
in order for me to be evaluated. My PCP refused to refer me for evaluation stating I "was just a whiny child". My parents had to change to a PPO plan in order to obtain GI evaluation and it was discovered I had inherited Familial Adenomatous Polyposis from my mother and a year later I required my colon to be removed due to my colon polyps starting to turn cancerous. The possible alternative outcomes at the time are countless and unknown due to delay in care caused by having an HMO plan and a PCP who refused providing referrals.
Don't hesitate to ask to be seen by other medical specialties for consults and second opinions. If you have a PPO insurance plan you can find a provider in-network and schedule a consultation without requiring anything from your existing doctors. Specialists are trained to focus primarily in their area of expertise and while your health issue may not be in the realm of another specialist, there's no harm in obtaining a consultation to confirm if something else is occurring.
For instance, I have been having chronic pain
shortly after my 8th surgery
to remove my gall bladder. After my surgeon released me after ordering a few tests to try to determine the cause of my pain, my GI specialist took over the evaluation. I obtained a second opinion from another surgeon and without success from the tests my GI specialist was ordering, I scheduled an appointment with a Rheumatologist and Neurologist for consultations
. Rheumatology was unable to identify any issues in their field but the neurologist was able to provide me a diagnosis and treatment plan for my symptoms. It took 6.5 months and consulting 7 specialists, but I finally was diagnosed with Abdominal Migraine
- Ask About Differential Diagnosis
A differential diagnosis is a list of possible conditions that share the same symptoms. This is not a final diagnosis but rather a theory of possible causes for particular symptoms. Once you have this list, then you can ask your provider about each potential cause of your symptoms - why does your provider think or doesn't think X is causing your symptoms and so forth through the differential diagnosis list.
- Request Explanation and Documentation of Denied Medical Requests
If you ask your provider for a certain medical test to be performed or a medication to try and your provider refuses to order the test or medication, then ask why that test or medication isn't being ordered for you. After receiving an explanation, if you still believe the test or medication should be ordered and the provider refuses again, tell your provider that you want your request, the provider's refusal to order the requested items, and the reasoning for refusal to be documented in your medical chart.
If you aren't comfortable with any of your doctors, discuss your concerns with the doctor and if the issues aren't resolved, you have the right to change providers - essentially firing them. This can be more difficult if available providers is limited by HMO insurance plans or the area where you receive care (i.e. rural). If possible, it can make a significant difference in medical care if one is able to travel further for care.
There are some instances where the process of changing providers needs to be carefully done to preserve continued treatment. For example, a dialysis patient cannot receive dialysis treatments without being under the care of a nephrologist. While a dialysis patient can change to a different nephrologist, it is vital for the patient to have an accepting nephrologist before ending care with (firing) their nephrologist to avoid any lapses in their care.
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