To me, an empowered patient is someone who exudes confidence, who can ask her doctor the hard questions, who goes for a second or third opinion, who speaks up when something doesn’t feel right. For some people, that kind of confidence comes naturally. Man, do I envy those people! But for most of us, having that kind of confidence is a struggle. I tend to rely on professionals to tell me what to do — they’re the professionals, after all. I don’t even question my hairstylist!
So when you consider the years doctors have spent in medical school, residency, fellowship, and in practice, it’s natural to worry that questioning them might seem disrespectful. And yet, most doctors — the good ones, anyway, whether they are oncologists, endocrinologists, or neurologists — will listen to the questions of a respectful but empowered patient, happy to ensure that their patient is receiving the best care possible. Still, I know that confidence is something that is easily lost in stressful situations, so how can patients train themselves to be empowered?
- Find a mentor. Pick someone who you see as empowered, and spend time with them. You might find them in a support group. My cancer mentor was a friend of a friend who was just finishing her treatment as I began mine. She made sure I knew what questions to ask my doctors and when to speak up.
- Practice. Knowing that time with your doctor is a precious commodity, it’s easy to get flustered and fail to communicate all you want to. Write down your questions ahead of time, and consider practicing your delivery so that you’ve already thought of a succinct, effective way to phrase your message.
- Wear the good shoes and lipstick. A generalization, sure. But you know yourself — do what it takes to feel strong and powerful. Personally, I always feel more empowered if my shoes and lipstick make a statement. (I still remember the motorcycle boots and the oxblood shade of lipstick I was wearing when I confidently told the office manager that it was not ok that I was being asked to reschedule an appointment I had confirmed mere hours earlier, before showing up and waiting to be seen.) For you, maybe it’s a favorite t-shirt, a good run, or a healthy breakfast. Take the time to do whatever will give you a little boost of confidence.
- Get an accountability partner. It works for exercise, so it should work here, too! You know which friend, sister, or annoying daughter-in-law will make sure you follow through — tell them that you’re going to ask your doctor about a clinical trial or that you’re going to call another doctor for a second opinion. And if you know that even the threat of their wrath might not be enough, take them along to the appointment knowing they will ask the question if you chicken out! (Added bonus: You can throw said friend under the bus with a quick, “I’m only asking because I know she’ll throw a fit if I don’t!”)
- Use your experience. The person who taught me the most about advocating for myself was Howard, the service department manager at my car dealership. I had a lemon of a car that didn’t turn sour until just after lemon laws expired, though thankfully the numerous repairs were covered by warranty. Still, I can’t even begin to go into the headaches that car caused. Howard took care of me and made appropriate accommodations in the end, but only after I learned how to respectfully insist that my concerns be addressed.
- Keep everything in perspective. Odds are, your doctor won’t be insulted by your questions or desire to seek another opinion. But is an insulted specialist really the worst thing that could happen? When it comes down to it, I hate the thought of offending anyone. But I’d much rather risk insulting my doctor than worry that I made the wrong decision about how to treat my life-threatening illness.
Being an empowered patient might seem uncomfortable at first, but feeling confident that I’ve weighed all my options and made the right decision for me is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world. And so before every appointment, I check the list of questions in my notebook, put on some good lipstick, and think of Howard. And so I challenge you — figure out what will make you feel the most confident and head to your next appointment empowered and ready to be an active part of your care team!