Health Advocates

How to Help Your Patients Be Their Own Health Advocates


The days of passive patients with a “doctor knows best” attitude are over. And that’s actually a good thing for everyone — even doctors. Patients who are active in their health care fare better, recover more quickly, and incur lower costs than passive ones. Patients who participated with providers in shared decision-making had overall medical costs that were 5.3 percent lower than other patients, according to a recent study in Health Affairs.

And what doctor doesn’t want empowered, educated patients who understand their conditions and comply with treatment? Teaching patients to be their own health advocates and to speak up when necessary takes some work on the doctor’s part, but it’s worth the effort. Some strategies to keep in mind:

How age and education factor in

Taking a proactive role in one’s health care may be a generational issue. Seniors tend to look to doctors more as authority figures than partners, though that is changing as today’s seniors become more tech-savvy and connected than ever before. According to a Pew Research study, 59 percent of Americans age 65 or older go online.

People living in the United States who speak little English tend to be passive in the doctor-patient relationship as well, since it can be difficult for them to understand and communicate effectively about health issues. Even among the general population, data shows that only 12 percent of U.S. adults have proficient health literacy. Depending on the patient populations you serve, you’ll need to make a concerted effort to make sure you’re communicating in a way they can understand.

Also, be aware that as many as 85 percent of people are visual learners who retain information better by seeing pictures or videos rather than by hearing it or reading it. Make sure your patient education materials take that into account.

The ABC’s of better doctor-patient communication

Baylor College of Medicine hosts “How to Talk to Your Doctor” workshops, in which they teach a simple mnemonic: ABC, which stands for Ask questions, Be prepared, and Communicate concerns and desires. Let’s take a look at each of these individually.

Encourage your patients to ask questions if they don’t understand something. While doctors should try their best to make sure their patients grasp what they’re saying, “the onus is on the patient to indicate when they don’t understand something,” Jessie Gruman, PhD, founder and president of the Center for the Advancement of Health in Washington, D.C., told WebMD. But clinicians can help by using techniques such as the teach-back method to make sure patients are accurately tracking the conversation.

The next step is for patients to “be prepared.” The average patient has three issues he or she wants to address during a doctor visit. Start by asking patients the primary reason for their visit, and encourage them to make a list of questions before their next appointment. Patient education can also be helpful here, especially if patients are able to access it online at home or in the waiting room prior to their appointment.

Lastly, patients must communicate any concerns they have about treatment options, costs, or what their health insurance covers. Assure your patients that they do not need to be embarrassed or worried about receiving substandard care if they voice concerns about the costs of tests or treatments.

Being your own health advocate is easier than ever

In this day and age, it’s smart for all of us to be our own health advocate. Access to electronic medical records, wearable health apps and digital tools, and new ways to communicate with doctors make it easier than ever for patients to be active participants in their care. You may be the medical expert, but patients are the experts on their bodies and their lives. So help build their confidence and strengthen communication by assuring patients that their input is valuable, and that you are there to listen and serve them to the best of your ability.

To find out more about communicating with and educating patients, contact us or sign up for a free two-week trial of our internet-based patient education platform.

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