Speak up, speak out! Nine ways to advocate for your needs at the doctor

November 15, 2018

Serena Williams and daughter Olympia

As she has shared, tennis legend Serena Williams faced life-threatening complications while giving birth to her baby girl Olympia last year. If it weren’t for Serena speaking up and pushing for doctors to listen to her, she may not have survived. Her story offers a perfect example of how important it is for us to be able to advocate for ourselves in healthcare settings.

Serena is not alone in feeling she had to make a concerted effort to speak up. Patients of all backgrounds are finding themselves on the short end of the stick in our current state of health care. Doctors are often overworked, exhausted, short on time, and are prone to make mistakes.

African Americans, in particular, find themselves feeling ignored and receiving a lesser quality of care. Research shows that when dealing with African American patients, non-African American providers prescribe treatment less often, are less empathetic, take reports of pain and symptoms less seriously, are more physically standoffish and tend to believe that African American patients don’t comply with medical guidance.

Addressing the underlying causes (i.e. racial bias) that lead to this sort of treatment will take time. So what can we do right now to strive for the type of interactions with health providers that we deserve? Here are some tips for taking an active role in your healthcare.

1. Do your research. Not a “Dr. Google” search to diagnose yourself – that may be more harmful than helpful. Research treatment options to gain a solid understanding of any health conditions you’re dealing with.

2. Set and prioritize goals. Before visits with your doctor, determine what you want to get out of the visit and what’s most important. Bring a written list with you to reference.

3. Bring a friend or family member. Having a trusted loved one with you can offer emotional support. He or she can also act as back up in describing your symptoms, so your doctor will be more likely to take it seriously.

4. Make lists. Document the symptoms that you have been feeling and any circumstances surrounding the onset of those symptoms.

5. Remind your doctor that you’re a team. Studies have shown that the negative effects of bias that doctors experience can be offset by viewing themselves and their patient as a team.

6. Take notes or record your visit. Take notes to ensure that you remember what you and your doctor have discussed. Or, if your provider gives you permission, record your conversation with your phone.

7. Don’t soldier through discomfort. Be honest with your doctor about your pain. If the side effects of a prescribed treatment are too much to bear, let your doctor know.

8. Ask questions. Then ask some more. If you don’t understand something that your doctor is explaining, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. Though it may feel uncomfortable, if the doctor is using words that you aren’t familiar with, say so.

9. Push back when needed. If a proposed prescription or other action isn’t right for your lifestyle, acknowledge that and explain why. Trust that you know your body. You have a say in what’s right for you.

Each of these tips can help you to feel more prepared and confident to advocate for what you need when working with your health provider. Treat your health care visits like dinner out at a restaurant. You wouldn’t let your waiter bring you the wrong order. Don’t allow your health care provider to leave you wanting for more.