Medical science now shows that when patients are empowered to play an active role in their health care, they are more invested in the process which results in better health. Medical education is redefining the doctor-patient relationship as one that respects the patient as an intelligent participant in health care decisions. The old doctor-patient relationship put the doctor in an authoritative role, as in “doctor knows best” and patients were in a passive role, as in “follow the doctor’s orders.” Now physicians are taught the principles of “shared informed decision making”; doctors and patients share information and collaborate in treatment decision. Patients are empowered with information and take ownership in creating their health. Here are four tips for becoming a more engaged and empowered patient.
Firstly, knowledge is power. You need to understand your body and any issues that you have. Ask your doctor to write down any words that are new to you, such as the name of a diagnosis, a test or treatment. Ask them to explain anything that you don’t fully understand, or work with a naturopathic physician to deepen your understanding of your health conditions. The internet can be a wonderful source of information, but, without the context a physician can provide, it can be overwhelming.
Secondly, keep a health journal. A health journal is a place where you can keep a record of your health issues, tests, procedures and medication. Keeping track of your health history helps you to be an informed, knowledgeable patient. Knowledge allows you to take more control of your healthcare. The best health journals have separate tabs for pharmaceutical and natural medicine history, hospitalizations, surgeries, blood work, imaging and other tests, specialist reports, allergies, and family medical history. I encourage my patients to get copies of all their lab work. Sixteen percent of abnormal lab results are not reported to the patient in Canada. In my 20 years of practice, I have found many missed diagnoses by going over lab work that the patient hadn’t seen. You can get copies of blood work easily by having your blood taken at Life Labs and setting up an online account to view your labs, or if you have blood taken at your doctor’s office or one of St. Joe’s outpatient labs you can call 1 866 370-8355 and ask them to mail you your lab work. Your doctor can also print a copy of your lab work. I encourage my patients to ask their family doctor for copies of their specialist reports as well as imaging reports (x-rays, CT scans and MRIs).
Thirdly, an empowered patient needs to ask why. Any good problem solver needs to investigate the cause of the problem in order to create a lasting solution. Yet, in health care, we are often satisfied with treatments that mask symptoms but don’t address the underlying causative factors. You can take medications to lower blood pressure, but pills are not able to address the reasons why your blood pressure went up in the first place. When I prescribe pharmaceuticals, it is often because we need to control symptoms quickly, and buy the patient some time while we implement a plan to address the underlying causes and seek a long term solution that will optimize their health.
Fourthly, you can create a health care team to support your health goals. It may serve you to consult more than one health professional to create the optimal plan for your health. Your family doctor is an essential player in helping you access the conventional medical system when you need it. Family doctors are incredibly knowledgeable and hardworking, but they don’t have the time or training to provide for all the complex needs of their patients. Naturopathic physicians are medically trained physicians who focus on optimizing health with lifestyle, natural medicines, and pharmaceuticals when needed. Counsellors, physiotherapists, and other practitioners can all add their expertise to your health care team. An empowered patient lets their family doctor know who is on their team and encourages communication between practitioners.