Nurse Discussing Test Results With Patient

Being proactive can help patients to better maintain their health. (Getty Images)

There was a time when a doctor’s word was final – his or her education and experience was considered the foundation of unquestionable wisdom. But now, patients understand they also play an important role in their health care. By advocating for themselves and getting involved in the decision-making process, they can reap numerous benefits.

“There has been a solid, steady push over recent years toward patient empowerment,” says Linda Adler, CEO of Pathfinders Medical Advocacy and Consulting. “It’s been largely encouraged by dedicated patients and some providers who believe that health care isn’t only a right, but that people should have greater control over what happens to their own bodies.”

By being involved in your own health advocacy, you not only gain a greater sense of control, but also an increased confidence over your decisions, greater medical literacy, better treatment adherence and even better health outcomes.

1. Understand how your health insurance works.

Many Americans don’t understand the basics of their coverage, and understandably so – health insurance is complicated. A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 4 in 10 respondents don’t understand basic health insurance terms, and even fewer could calculate how much a patient would owe under certain hospitalization circumstances. Knowing how your insurance works helps you navigate the health care system with less chance of ending up with costly, unexpected medical bills.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Adler says patients should prepare for their doctor’s appointments, making a list of questions and concerns ahead of time. Though many patients are nervous their questions may disrupt an amicable doctor-patient relationship, she says this isn’t the case.

“You’re typically not going to have a lot of time with your provider,” she explains, “so it’s in your interest to know what you want going in.”

She recommends patients even rehearse their questions, with the ultimate goal of nurturing a partnership with your doctor. Eventually, you can get past a one-way, they talk, you listen relationship. “It’s absolutely possible to have a respectful conversation, even a negotiation, without feeling any discomfort or alienation.”

3. Maintain your own records.

If you’ve ever switched doctors or seen a specialist, you know what a hassle it can be to have your records transferred. With the growing prevalence of electronic health records, maintaining your own copies is easier than ever. By keeping tabs on your own documents, you won’t have to worry as much about them getting lost in the shuffle, and you can see exactly what your doctors are seeing.

4. Review your medical bills for errors.

An estimated 8 in 10 medical bills contain errors – errors that go undetected without the sharp eye of an empowered patient. Medical bills can be difficult to decipher. Adler recommends patients ask questions as they arise, even if they seem “obvious or ridiculous.”

“When it comes to your medical bills, play defense. Assume that if something can go wrong, it will, and take every possible step to make sure nothing does,” she says. “Remember, it’s your money, so you’re in charge.”

5. Know when a second opinion is appropriate.

One in 20 Americans fall victim to outpatient diagnostic errors, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. And even if you’re comfortable with your doctor’s diagnosis, seeking the input of another physician could save you from unnecessary medical costs and unnecessary stress.

Generally, any recommendations for major non-emergency surgery, any questions about the validity of your diagnosis and any concerns you may have about not being heard are good justifications for a second opinion. Just make sure to check your insurance coverage before you make that additional appointment.

6. Take advantage of free preventive care under the Affordable Care Act.

With the ACA came access to free preventive care. If you’re insured under an ACA-compliant plan – and if your health insurance began after March 31, 2010 you likely are – you can take advantage of at least 15 free health screenings and services. Additional preventive services are available for women, children and older adults. These free services give you an additional reason to visit your doctor, keep the lines of communication open and stay on top of any potential health concerns.

You don’t need to feel intimidated by your medical providers. They work for you, not the other way around. And when the common ground in these relationships is your health, it’s in your best interest to be as empowered as possible.

Tags: health, patients, patient safety, doctors, health care, patient advice

Elizabeth Renter is a journalist who writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that helps people make smart health and financial decisions. You can follow her on Twitter @ElizabethRenter, and find her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+.

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