9 tips for being a smart health care consumer

Customer service is all the rage in the health care industry. Hospitals and doctors' practices finally realized that their patients are also customers, and customers vote with their feet.

Although this trend toward better customer service is driven by market competition, it is a welcome development. Even so, as a health care consumer, you are still responsible for your own well-being.

Here are my tips for making smart choices as a health care consumer. It should go without saying that these are in addition to your good-health guidelines (eating well, getting enough sleep and getting regular exercise).

1. Know thyself.

No one knows your body as well as you do. Pay attention to it. If something seems "off" and doesn't resolve itself in a few days, check with your doctor. It may be nothing, or it may be something. A good doctor would rather have you check than not check.

2. Consult reliable resources online.

I'm sure you've seen those "clickbait" ads: "People with colon cancer wish they had known this sooner." Don't bother with that information, or stuff you find on Facebook. Instead, consult reliable online sources of health care information. Some recommended sites are

• National Institutes of Health (

• MedlinePlus, an arm of the NIH (

• Mayo Clinic (

• FamilyDoctor (

3. Be persistent.

The practice of medicine is part science, part intuition and part art. You probably have read plenty of articles about people with symptoms consulting their doctor, only to have the doctor miss the root cause of the problem. Doctors will make the most likely diagnosis first; if it's the right one, great. If not, and your symptoms persist, you should persist as well. Keep asking questions and do not hesitate to get a second opinion.

4. Read up on your health care coverage.

Which hospitals and doctors are in your network? How are procedures covered? Do you need referrals to specialists? Is that MRI a flat co-pay, or 20% coinsurance? That will make a big difference to your pocketbook. (By the way, if you don't have coverage, you can still sign up under the Affordable Care Act until Aug. 15. If your circumstances change and you lose coverage, you can enroll at at any time.)

5. Choose your doctors wisely.

Even with Medicare, you can choose your primary care physician. See if family members or neighbors have recommendations. You can also look for recommendations on social media platforms such as NextDoor. Website searches will sometimes return star ratings for doctors and hospitals. And then, of course, make sure that doctor is within your insurance network. Finally, if you feel a doctor or the staff isn't treating you with respect, find a new doctor and tell the old one why you left.

6. Be proactive.

As I wrote in an earlier column, many of us have skipped appointments and screenings during the pandemic. Now's the time to schedule those, as well as making sure your vaccines are up to date. If you have a lab test and don't hear about the results within a few days, call to check on them. At an appointment, listen carefully, ask questions and write down the answers. I usually suggest to patients and families that they write down questions in advance because, invariably, you forget what you wanted to ask while you're sitting in a doctor's office. If a test or medication is recommended, ask why.

7. Keep up with your meds.

Keep track of your prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. If you take more than a couple, carry a list in your wallet, including dosages and frequency. Be sure to order refills on time so you don't miss doses, and be aware that sometimes you will need a prescription to be renewed or approved in advance by your insurer - which can take more time.

8. Use online portals when they're available.

Insurers, health care systems and most medical practices have some kind of online portal, where you can check prices, pay bills, schedule appointments, request prescription refills and ask questions. Making use of these services will save you time and help you stay in charge of your health care.

9. Ask for help.

This is probably the most important tip I can offer. Take a family member or friend (in person or virtually) to appointments if you need an additional set of ears, someone to take notes, or help understanding diagnoses or medications. In some cases, a patient advocate may be a useful resource.

You are your own best friend when it comes to your health, and best friends look out for each other. You deserve no less.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She recently created a three-month training course for nurses who wish to become patient advocates (see You can contact her at (312) 788-2640.

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