Imagine your doctor has just given you a serious diagnosis or told you she was concerned about the results of your medical test. You might understandably be frightened.
Listening carefully to your doctor and asking questions about a diagnosis or test results can help you get better care. But here’s the problem: Just when you should be paying close attention to what your doctor is saying, you may be stunned by the news you've received.
That’s when having a health or patient advocate can help.
A health advocate can be a family member, friend, trusted coworker, or a hired professional who accompanies you to your appointments and asks questions, writes down information, and speaks up for you so you can better understand your illness and get the care you need. (For more about hiring an advocate, see the sidebar on the next page.)
Research shows that quality health care requires taking an active role in decisions about your care. If you’re facing a difficult medical decision, it’s a good idea to bring someone with you who can help focus on your care when you’re not fully up to it
As a doctor and a patient, I’ve seen how valuable it is to have "another set of ears and eyes" in the exam room. Having an advocate at medical appointments or during a hospital stay can ensure that you get the information you need to manage your health.
Health advocates can:
- Ask questions or voice concerns to your doctor for you.
- Compile or update your medicine list.
- Remember your medication regimen and help you follow treatment. instructions, including asking questions about your follow-up care.
- Help arrange transportation.
- Research treatment options, procedures, doctors, and hospitals.
- File paperwork or assist with insurance matters.
- Ask the "what’s next" questions, such as, "If this test is negative what does it mean? If it’s positive, will more tests be needed?"
Of course, many encounters with the medical system are routine and don’t require the use of a patient advocate. But there are instances when an advocate can be valuable. For example, if you’ve had a series of tests and you’re concerned the results may reveal a diagnosis such as cancer, you might want to bring an advocate with you to hear and discuss the results.
Getting a diagnosis of a serious illness can be an overwhelming experience. You’re likely to be distracted and miss hearing important information. An advocate can gather that information for you and ask the questions that need to be asked.
Who makes a good health advocate?
A health advocate should be a person who is calm, pays attention to details, and can ask questions and state information clearly. If possible, choose someone who knows you well. Be clear about what kind of help you need and what worries you.
It’s helpful to give your advocate details of your medical history. For example, you may want to discuss the tests you’ve had, list medicines you take, and provide any treatment preferences as well as contact information for other family members and your durable power of attorney.
If your advocate doesn’t know you well, be certain to let him or her know if your hearing or vision is limited. He or she can alert your medical team to speak clearly and to read instructions aloud if they are not available in large type.
If you can’t locate an advocate before an important medical or hospital visit, you can often find a nurse or doctor to serve in this role. Some professional advocates specialize in researching the best available treatments and can assist you at home or in the hospital. Check to see if your health insurance covers these services.
You can also ask your local hospital staff to recommend a patient advocate. In fact, some hospitals and nursing homes employ advocates who work on patients’behalf at no charge.
It’s likely that you or a loved one will one day need a health advocate. For many patients, the benefits of having an advocate are priceless because this person can help you understand your options and give you peace of mind so you can focus on your recovery.
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Carolyn M. Clancy is a general internist and researcher, and the "Finding Your Way" columnist for AARP's Bulletin. As the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality she is an expert about how consumers can engage in their health care.