Self-advocacy 101 and a free webinar to learn more

Many of us seem to have a love/hate relationship with the U.S. health care system. We appreciate the many medical breakthroughs that allow us to live longer, happier lives - but we're frustrated by how hard it is sometimes to get the quality health care we seek.

Why does it have to be so complicated? Actually, it doesn't, not always, if you know how to work it. The trick is to learn how to be your own health care advocate.

How do you do that? Well, that's the million-dollar question - and the No. 1 inquiry I receive from Daily Herald readers!

This is what I tell them: you don't need a medical degree - but you do need good communication skills, patience and a willingness to roll up your sleeves. While learning to self-advocate is a process - more about that below - here are my top five starter tips for taking charge of your health care.

Master your health history

Can you recite your complete health history from memory? How about your medications and dosages? If you can't, you're not alone - but this is information you really need.

Do this one-time task: Take the time to document your complete health history in writing, including a separate list of meds. Keep both lists current, updating as you go, and put it on your phone. While you're at it, take a photo of your vaccination card and put it on the phone, too. Because if you're not on top of your health history, who will be?

Learn to 'speak doctor'

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average doctor's visit is just 17 minutes long, and that includes the examination. When you have an upcoming appointment, prepare in advance, writing down all your questions, symptoms, worries, etc.

Unless your doctor initiates it, don't engage in personal chitchat - keep the focus on your health. It's your 17 minutes; make the most of them.

Don't keep secrets

You'd be surprised how many patients are less than honest with doctors, either because they're embarrassed or afraid they'll be sent for additional testing. But if you're having chest pains, aren't taking your meds or are failing to follow your doctor's orders, you need to speak up. The only one you're hurting is … you.

Be polite (but persistent)

These days, doctors and nurses are under tremendous pressure. Showing courtesy and appreciation will always get you better results than anger and attitude. Besides, it's the right thing to do.

It's OK to keep asking for answers when you don't get them the first time; in fact, you owe it to yourself to do so. But it's not OK to be rude about it. Ever.

Ask for help when you need it

When it comes to health care, sometimes you need a wingman. Or wingwoman. For example, if you have trouble focusing in the doctor's office, ask a family member to come along and take notes. Or, if you're putting off getting, say, a colonoscopy because you're reluctant to ask a friend for a ride, get over it - and get the test you need. And remember: You can (and should) return the favor!

In summary, it's easy to be intimidated by the health care system. But self-advocacy is one of those life skills you can develop with a little practice and coaching.

Free webinar: In response to all your questions, I'm presenting a complimentary webinar for Daily Herald readers at 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 13. It's called "Self-Advocacy 101: How to Secure Better Healthcare for Yourself and Your Loved Ones." I promise you will come away a much smarter health care consumer! For more info and to preregister, visit

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She offers a free phone consultation at (847) 612-6684.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.