We all want top notch healthcare and most of us put great effort into vetting the providers who treat our family, but patients often forget that they hold the keys to the quality of health care they ultimately receive.
Those who fail to seek treatment when sick, disclose relevant health information in the exam room, or follow treatment regimens, for example, open the door to misdiagnosis, higher health care costs, and health complications. In short, they are setting their doctors up to fail.
“When you go in to talk to the doctors, they are going to give you advice based on what you tell them and what they see going on,” said Caitlin Donovan, a spokesperson for the National Patient Advocacy Foundation in Washington, D.C., in an interview. “You are going to get the best care when you speak up for yourself.”
Indeed, doctors are like detectives. They mine for symptoms in the exam room, research underlying causes, and glean what they can from test results to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment plan. Thus, if you don’t provide a thorough medical history, doctors can’t do their job.
The National Institutes of Health advises patients to be honest and upfront about their symptoms, even if they feel embarrassed or shy.1
“Have an open dialogue with your doctor — ask questions to make sure you understand your diagnosis, treatment and recovery,” the agency suggests on its website. “Clear and honest communication between you and your physician can help you both make smart choices about your health.”
To facilitate effective doctor-patient communication, NIH also recommends patients bring along a notepad with all their questions and concerns jotted down, so they don’t get sidetracked if the conversation veers.
They may also consider bringing a close friend or family member along to serve as a second set of ears. (After all, it’s tough to stay focused if you are scared, sick, or in pain.)
Stick to treatment plan
Drugs can’t make you better if you don’t fill the prescription and therapies won’t fix what ails you if you don’t stay the course.
Too many patients shoot themselves in the foot, medically speaking, by failing to adhere to their treatment plan.
That increases their risk of hospitalization, costly readmission, and potentially even premature death for those with higher risk health problems, such as heart disease.
Noncompliance takes many forms, including failing to get a prescription filled, taking incorrect medication doses, skipping regular check-ups (especially for the chronically ill), and glossing over good advice to lose weight, exercise, or quit smoking. (Learn more: Why you shouldn't lie on insurance forms)
The most recent data published in Medicine, a medical research journal, found roughly 25 percent of patients who were prescribed either an antibiotic, antihypertensive, or antidiabetic medication did not fill their prescriptions in the following 90 days.2
Get preventive care
Many patients visit their doctor only when they get sick. That’s a mistake.
Indeed, where healthcare is concerned, a good offense is always your best defense.
Regular check-ups, including annual physical exams, help doctors identify problems before they start.
Blood work and health screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies, also establish a necessary baseline, which can help providers flag health concerns early on. That, in turn, leads to better patient outcomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For children, in particular, immunizations are key to keeping serious childhood diseases at bay, the CDC reports.
“By getting the right health services, screenings, and treatments, you are taking the steps that help your chances for living a longer, healthier life,” the CDC states on its website. “Your age, health and family history, lifestyle choices (i.e. what you eat, how active you are, whether you smoke), and other important factors impact what and how often you need healthcare.” (Learn more: Running adds life … and other benefits)
The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests patients take written notes home to help them remember information and care instructions, discuss treatment options so you understand the pros and cons of each, and above all else — ask questions.
Arrive together at a care and treatment plan you can stick with.
“It is important for you to let your doctor know if you don’t understand something,” AAFP states in its online brochure. “If you don’t ask questions, your doctor will think you understand everything he or she has told you.”
Tell your doctor, too, when you need more time to discuss something. Often, a physician assistant or nurse will be made available for ongoing patient education. If no one is available, ask if you can schedule another appointment to continue your discussion, the AAFP suggests.
Communicate clearly with healthcare providers
Most physicians are adopting electronic health records, which makes sharing health and care information between providers easier. But the onus is still on you to tell your primary care doctor which medications you are taking, especially if they were prescribed by an outside specialist, which can help prevent adverse drug interactions.
Don’t assume your doctor already knows. (Related: The benefits of a personal health record)
Similarly, bring to your appointments any recent X-rays, test results, or medical records you may have, so you are all on the same page and your doctor doesn’t have to order costly, duplicate tests.
Donovan said patients should also share with their provider any concerns they have about their ability to comply with their treatment regimen.
“Your financial and physical health are intimately related, so if you have any concerns about your ability to afford physical therapy or a medication they have prescribed, let your doctors know,” she said. “Tell them, too, if you have trouble keeping your appointments because of transportation issues.”
Remember, health care providers can be a valuable resource. The office staff may be able to point you towards discount community care, government programs that offer financial assistance, free transportation services, and patient support groups.
They may also be best positioned to advocate on your behalf. So don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, said Donovan.
If you have done your part as a patient, and you feel your doctor is dismissive or unable to give you adequate time to discuss your concerns or treatment options, it may be time for a change.
“The doctor-patient relationship is one of the most important in your life,” said Donovan. “If you don’t think your doctor is listening to you, and you don’t have the level of trust in your doctor that you need, find a new one. You are the expert on your own body.”
When it comes to optimizing the quality of their medical care, patients have more power than they think.
By keeping their appointments, following treatment plans, and being an active participant in the exam room, patients can ensure their doctors deliver the best possible care for themselves and their family.
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This article was originally published in September, 2016. It has been updated.
1 National Institutes of Health, “Clear Communication: Talking to Your Doctor,” April 25 2022.
2 Medicine, “Prescription fill rates for acute and chronic medications in claims-EMR linked data,” November 2018.