How to Advocate for Yourself at Doctor’s Visits, According to Doctors


doctor taking patient's blood pressure

With a limited amount of allotted time and a pressing health matter to discuss, a trip to the doctor’s office can sometimes feel like a high-stakes event. Even the most routine visits can leave you feeling dissatisfied if there’s a communication barrier, too many items on the agenda, or a personality clash.

Research shows that people who are able to vocalize their medical needs tend to be happier with their health care experiences and are even more likely to see improvements in symptoms and other important outcomes. So how can patients become better advocates for themselves and help take charge of their health in the process? We asked physicians for their best tips and strategic advice to help ensure your next doctor’s appointment goes as smoothly as possible.

[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”] Write down your concerns before the visit 

Dr. Michael Albert, chief of internal medicine with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians in Odenton, Md., says he understands what patients can be up against when they go to see their doctor. First, there’s the inherent power balance between doctor and patient, which he says is slowly changing as medical schools begin to focus more on patient-centered care, but remains a problem. And he’s heard more than his share of stories over the years of physicians who appear to lack empathy when a patient raises concerns. “We know we need to do better as physicians,” Albert says.

Some of that disconnect comes down to time pressures, which can make physicians feel rushed to find a “fix” for their patients, rather than validating their feelings, Albert says. 

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To counteract that, he advises all patients to write a list of their concerns in order of urgency to help ensure that their voice is heard in the appointment. It doesn’t need to be an exhaustive narrative; in fact, being brief is key to keeping the appointment on track. But people who come prepared with a note highlighting main points they want to discuss often make better use of their limited time with the doctor. “Then we can really dig into the things that are most important,” he says.

By the time patients reach sub-specialist Dr. Kathryn Mills, they’ve usually already interacted with numerous physicians and other care providers. Mills, a gynecologic oncologist and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Chicago Medicine, says it can be confusing and overwhelming for patients to navigate the system, which is why she encourages them to write down their questions in advance.

“It is hard, when you get in that moment, to remember everything that you wanted to have addressed,” says Mills.

Send a portal message the day before

When a concise written list won’t suffice—such as when a patient wants to provide contextual information about a complicated injury—Albert says sending an electronic message through a patient portal the day before an appointment can help prepare the doctor. Some insurance plans have begun paying doctors for responding to portal messages, which incentivizes doctors to communicate with patients.

Just don’t expect doctors to respond to complex questions through portal communication, Albert says. Those issues are best addressed in person.

Craft an “opening statement”

Doctors always face time constraints and are usually juggling multiple demands, Albert says. To help foster a strong relationship, he often advises patients to start their appointments with a brief opening statement that highlights their reason for coming in while acknowledging the doctor’s hectic schedule.

And the little things, such as showing up on time and making sure your paperwork is filled out, can go a long way toward building the provider-patient relationship, Mills says. When patients are on time and prepared, doctors are better able to stick to their schedule and spend the appointment focused on the issues at hand.

Google your symptoms—yes, really

Doctors rarely advise patients to fall down a rabbit hole online. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do research. The best patient is the informed patient, according to Dr. Benita Petri-Pickstone, a family physician in Gahanna, Ohio and clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. She says a vital aspect of self-advocacy is for patients to take an active role in their health, which means doing their research ahead of time so they can ask informed questions. Be proactive, raise any concerns with your doctor, and don’t hesitate to ask a multitude of questions, she says.

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“The patient who tends to get the better care is usually one that is more vocal and asks informed questions about things based on what they’ve read and based on symptoms that they are feeling,” Petri-Pickstone says.

Bring someone to your appointment

In situations where people may not be able to advocate for themselves, such as seniors who are experiencing a cognitive decline, Petri-Pickstone encourages them to bring along a trusted friend or family member. “I’m always open to having spouses and children come in with the patient to help give a good history so I can find out the total picture about what’s happening,” she says. 

Seek a second opinion

When patients are experiencing doubt or appear to be uneasy, Mills encourages them to seek a second opinion. Mills often sees patients who are coming to her for one,  and she believes it’s a critical step people can take to advocate for themselves and ensure they are getting the right care. 

She says that sometimes, patients don’t want to tell her they are in her office to seek a second opinion because they’re afraid it will color her opinion. But Mills says she believes it better serves patients if they are transparent and speak about the specific concerns that prompted them to seek the advice of another physician. “It sets the stage in a different way,” she says.

Don’t hesitate to find new care

Sometimes, the relationship between a doctor and patient just isn’t the right fit, Albert says. If someone has tried everything and the doctor is impossible to understand or just doesn’t listen, it might be time to seek another provider, he says. “They should select somebody who they feel more comfortable with,” he says.

The ideal doctor-patient relationship will vary depending on a person’s needs. But in general, people should be able to have a back-and-forth discussion with their physician and feel like their concerns are being heard and addressed, Albert says. If people feel like their doctor is going to listen, it becomes much easier for them to advocate for what they need.

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