Navigating healthcare can feel like driving down a twisty road at night. You know where you want to go, but there are a lot of twists and too few road signs along the way. It can be confusing to figure out who you need to talk to, what tests to get, and which treatment regimens to follow.
At the end of the day, you make the final decisions about your health. Are you making the right ones? With an increasing world of choice, it’s important to educate yourself about your medical conditions, your rights, and your options. This puts you where you belong, in the decision seat of your healthcare.
Healthcare in Your Own Hands
In recent decades, there’s been a shift away from the traditional model of centralized healthcare. Once upon a time, patients went to the hospital and let medical staff run tests. Then their doctor would decide on a course of treatment, often with little input from the patient. At every step, the healthcare consumer took a passive role, simply showing up and letting the healthcare professionals take action.
Healthcare is now becoming more decentralized. You can video call your doctor from home or grab your prescription from the pharmacy section of a big box store. The local urgent care can take care of many ailments with hours of operation convenient to working people. The neighborhood physical therapy center can rehabilitate your bad knee. Hospitals still play an important role, but patients have many other options for finding healthcare.
More choices make it critical for patients to speak up and be proactive about their health. Where do they begin? One starting place is the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. This government site offers resources for managing one’s own health, such as lists of recommended screenings. More importantly, it advises patients on how to put together their own personal health record. This record isn’t a digital file that exists on the website. It’s a series of forms to print, fill out, and store somewhere safe.
Why go through this extra trouble? Currently, we have to fill out forms at every healthcare center we go to, and our medical history exists in scattered pieces. We can request one facility to send the file to another clinic, but there’s no guarantee the information will arrive in reasonable time, or at all. There are always data accidents – did your clinic have backup copies of that ultrasound, or is the data gone forever?
A well-organized, up-to-date personal health record puts the power in your hands. You can bring copies of your medical history to any healthcare specialist you want to see. It’s a key building block to taking the wheel of your medical journey. And the digital Electronic Health Record (EHR), updated digitally in real time, is evolving, but not fully deployed yet.
Beyond the Doctor’s Office
You and your doctor are working together for the common cause of your own better health, but your doctor can only do so much in a short hospital visit. When you get home, in many ways your health is in your own hands.
This is especially true if you’re grappling with severe injury or chronic illness. Some conditions will eventually heal; others can only be managed. How well you handle this depends on a few factors: education, action, and self-advocacy. Seniors who may be more alone in their journey of aging may often feel adrift in terms of medical assistance.
The answer is the same for all ages, namely to educate yourself about your condition. What can you expect in the future? If you aren’t going to recover any time soon, you can prepare your home and social network for this transition, with remodeling for infirmity and aging in place, and for accommodating homecare help.
It’s important to update your doctor on what you’re going through. Their ability to diagnose and treat often depends in large part on the information you provide. Keep notes on your symptoms and how you’re reacting to medication or treatments. This helps your doctor fine-tune your treatment plan, and also adds to the general well-being by better helping the next person with your condition.
Taking action is about more than taking your prescribed medication. What can you do, proactively, to improve your physical or mental health? Lose weight? Deep-clean the home to banish allergens? Seek help for your PTSD? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pick one small lifestyle improvement. Each tiny success can build up momentum until you’re ready to tackle the big issues.
Finally, one of the most powerful and challenging parts of managing your own healthcare is self-advocacy. It’s easy to say ‘speak up for yourself,’ but this can be hard in the practical moment. It’s important to act as a colleague with your healthcare team, to ask questions to learn and to get on the same page as them. If you aren’t sure about a diagnosis or suggested treatment, you have the right to a second opinion. It may be helpful to write questions out ahead of time or role-play with a friend until you’ve gotten the hang of speaking up.
You’re Steering the Healthcare Car
At the end of the day, you’re the healthcare consumer and your decisions are the final ones. If there’s friction with your medical care provider, ask yourself if this is where you need to be. Would you prefer someone more empathic or someone more formal and professional? What about someone who has a lower caseload and can take more time to talk with you?
If your current doctor isn’t working out, you may need to find another one. This can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s also doing both of you a favor. Moving on to a different provider gives you a chance to find a doctor who’s a better fit for your healthcare needs. It also frees your current doctor to help someone who matches their professional style.