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How to Advocate for Yourself at the Doctor’s

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Unless your healthcare provider is McDreamy, going to the doctor’s office isn’t most people’s idea of a good time, especially if your visit is for something outside of an annual checkup. Regardless of your feelings towards your provider, being in the American healthcare space and assuming the patient role can bring ~stuff~ up, especially as it pertains to women’s health. No matter your provider’s gender, there is a power differential inherent in the doctor/patient relationship. We’ve been there.

Let’s start by acknowledging that this discomfort is a very valid response within the context of a medical system that has for years neglected women’s health and wellness. Fortunately, the healthcare tides are shifting towards inclusion of, well, everyone, with visibility into women’s and transgender health at an all time high. Celebrities are speaking out more than ever on women’s health and just recently, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden announced $100 million in funding for women’s health research and development, signaling a growing acknowledgement of gaps in care today. Still, we’ve got a long way to go, and changes within the healthcare system at large may take a while to trickle down into practice.

We know this might not be super comforting, but by accepting our own control for our health and wellbeing, we can become better advocates for ourselves and loved ones and can experience better health outcomes.

We spoke with Laura Stratte, RN, Head of Clinical Operations at Elektra, on the subject of self-advocacy:

“My background really comes at this angle from both professional and personal directions. While in nursing school at 35, I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, and other than pregnancy, my contact with the healthcare system had been minimal. This really kind of thrust me into this world that forces you to be an active participant in something you know nothing about. When it comes down to it, what I learned is that you need to be an active participant in your care to get the best healthcare.”

You might be wondering, “okay, but how am I supposed to advocate for myself in a broken system?” Fair question, but we are not powerless, and we’ve got you covered with some key tips from Laura:

1. Prepare to do some legwork ✍🏻

Do some initial research, if possible

If you want to talk about a known issue, like menopause, doing some research into the condition itself and possible interventions can be helpful (and this is where Elektra can be especially helpful!). This isn’t impossible for every health concern, but if it is, going into a visit after digesting some basic information can be incredibly helpful. Like we always say at Elektra, knowledge is power.

Write down your questions

Before a doctor’s visit, it’s helpful to jot down a list of questions, just in case you forget them in the actual healthcare setting. This is also a valuable exercise as it forces you to identify why exactly you are making the appointment. Specificity helps providers understand the full picture and cater care towards a patient’s individual needs. It also helps to prioritize, so you ask your most pressing questions first.

Take note of what symptoms you’re experiencing

Details about the symptoms that have been concerning you and for how long are important for establishing context. Our providers recommend that patients jot down:

  • Frequency of symptoms
  • When a particular symptom arises
  • What, if anything, makes the symptoms better or worse

You can even try ranking them in order of least to most bothersome, so your provider can prioritize accordingly. Something that you rank as “least bothersome” might raise concern as well, so try and note it all.

Know your medical history

Another key prep step is having all relevant medical history handy, including your family’s. If you’re seeing a provider for menopause symptoms, knowing when your mom went through menopause and what her experience was like is useful information. While your provider will probably ask you basic questions around your family and personal health, such as cancer, surgery, etc., there probably won’t be an opening for you to talk about everything. If you know, for instance, that your body reacts poorly to a certain medication or supplement, but aren’t given the chance to disclose that, it’s still worth mentioning.

2. Bring a family member or loved one 👭

Studies show that patients only absorb around 20% of medical information provided during an appointment. If you are able to, bring a support person along with you to your appointment to help take notes, provide comfort, and be your back-up in case you forget to ask any of your questions. If you are seeing a provider for something outside of an annual visit or are discussing a new diagnosis, the appointment may be longer and more technical than usual. Having a second pair of ears will ensure you don’t miss any significant details, and your guest might have relevant follow-up questions that you wouldn’t think of.

3. Book the right kind of appointment 🗓️

When booking a doctor’s appointment because of a particular concern, it’s best to book a specialty visit, rather than wait for your annual well exam. The reason is twofold:

  • There is a lot of ground to cover in an annual exam. These appointments tend to move quickly and patients typically often only have an opening to ask questions at the end of the visit.
  • Doctors also may not be able to give you in depth responses about a specific concern at an annual exam due to billing and insurance protocol.
  • Plus, they may need more time to look through a patient’s medical records before advising on a discrete concern.

When booking the appointment, make sure to include as many details as possible upfront so your doctor has context going in. If your provider has a patient portal, there may be a field where you can upload this information and if not, you can relay it to the person helping you book an appointment on the phone.

4. Ask for clarification 🙋🏻‍♀️

Doctor’s appointments move swiftly, and oftentimes providers work off templates for their notes. If a doctor is reviewing your test results, for example, they might breeze through this section as it becomes routine. This is a common place for questions to come up, and if there is a point you need clarification on, you should ask them to pause and clarify. We know that the doctor/patient power differential can make this uncomfortable, but we have to remember that we still have agency and the ability to self-advocate. And making sure we understand what the doctor is saying is an absolute must. At the end of your appointment, if you have questions left, it’s definitely fair game to ask your provider for a follow-up visit. They may even offer follow-ups over the phone.

We also know that medical professionals can use jargon most people aren’t familiar with. If your provider is comfortable with it, you can ask to record your conversation for reference later on. AI recording apps like Abridge even will even synthesize your conversation into digestible, patient-friendly terms so you can leave your appointment with structured notes.

5. Get a second opinion 👩🏼‍⚕️

If after a doctor’s appointment you feel like your questions weren’t answered, you don’t completely understand a diagnosis or treatment plan, or you don’t feel comfortable with the provider, it may be worth getting a second opinion. If you’re looking for a new specialist, your primary care provider is a great place to start for a referral to someone else. If your provider works in a group practice, you may start by booking with another provider within the group. Many large hospital systems like New York Presbyterian and Mass General also offer online second opinion programs, usually for specialists, which typically don’t require a referral.

Even if you love your provider and feel heard, getting a second opinion on big decisions like experimental drugs or therapies is usually a good idea.

6. Know when to call the relationship quits 🛑

It’s important to remember that like all of us, medical professionals also have bad days. If you have had an overall positive relationship with a provider and they are standoffish or unhelpful at one appointment, it may very well be that it was just an off day for them. They could have been battling a killer headache, have something going on in their personal life, or just had to deliver bad news to another patient. If, however, this “off” day is one of a series, there is cause for concern. The same goes if your uncomfortable visit is the first with a new doctor; after all, you have no history to indicate this behavior is anything but their standard.

We recognize that it might not always be possible to seek a new provider, especially in the case of specialty care. If you feel dismissed and or gaslit after an appointment and don’t have the ability to see someone else, ask to book a follow-up visit. At this next appointment — and this is a great time to bring a support person along — you can tell your provider that you felt dismissed or confused at your last appointment and explain what you would like them to do differently. We deserve access to compassionate, high-quality care and, as hard as it is, must be our own advocates.

Learn more and book a visit with an Elektra provider>>