“I just wanted to tell you how important what you’re doing is,” the young cardiology resident at Oregon Health Sciences University said to me in a quiet voice. “Your husband’s lucky to have you.”
I could barely swallow the lump in my throat. My husband and I had spent the past 11 days in the cardiac ICU, surrounded by heart patients who were all 20 or 30 years older than we were. He’d just undergone heart surgery, which left him shaky and vomiting.
My husband was 48 years old, fit and athletic, so we were pretty shocked when he started having tachycardia and even more surprised when the doctors diagnosed him with an exceedingly rare heart condition. I was at his side the entire time, sleeping on a back-breaking cot in his hospital room, while our four children spent the winter holidays without us.
My husband’s sudden illness catapulted me into a world of allopathic medicine, overwhelm, and grief. The most senior doctor told me bluntly to get our affairs in order and cancel everything. He didn’t say it outright, but his message was clear: It was likely my husband would die.
So now, in a fog of sleep deprivation and anxiety, the resident’s praise surprised me. I’d insisted the medical personnel double check the dosing of every medication, asked them to slow down and repeat information I didn’t understand, and challenged them—politely—on nearly every recommendation.
Preventable ErrorsThere are several reasons a patient needs an advocate, especially if they can't advocate for themselves effectively. One of the key reasons is preventable errors.
This study concluded: “It is apparent that interns deprived of normal sleep may experience transient psychopathology and impaired efficiency of performance.”
But how reassuring is that? Most people aren't admitted to hospitals when they are healthy.
In addition to the many errors that can cost patients their lives, the pharmaceutical drugs that form the foundation of our medical system present inherent dangers, even when prescribed correctly.
Prescription drugs, Gotzsche reported, are the third leading cause of death all on their own, with about half of those deaths coming from drugs that are “taken correctly.”
How to Be an Effective Patient AdvocateAdvocating for yourself or a loved one may brand you a trouble maker. But the truth is that it can, quite literally, save a life.
Create Common GroundDoctors are notorious for not hearing what patients are saying. A 1984 study found that only 23 percent of patients at doctor visits were given the opportunity to get through their “opening statement of concerns.” And a 2019 study found that physicians interrupt their patients after an average of 11 seconds.
This may seem counterintuitive. How are doctors supposed to figure out what’s wrong if they don’t listen to patients? The answer is that they often don’t figure out what’s wrong with their patients, and that can have deadly consequences.
It’s imperative to find a way to get through to the medical personnel at the hospital so that they will listen to you when it counts. In order to do that, you have to connect.
You need to make sure that the doctor is seeing the patient as a person and not just a “case.” You want to do whatever you can to enlist the doctor as a healing partner, and that often requires getting personal.
Be Prepared and Communicate EffectivelyAny patient or patient advocate should have a detailed record of the patient's medical history and have given some thought to essential points they want to communicate with their doctor. Be succinct but thorough. If the patient or patient advocate begins a long-winded and indirect explanation of current medical issues, the doctor is more likely to be impatient and dismissive. Doctors operate within an increasingly mechanistic health care system that compels them to accelerate visits and quickly prescribe drugs, tests, or surgery.
To avoid problems that arise from that, be clear on essential problems and concerns, and make sure that you are clear on what the person you are advocating for is experiencing. Give your doctor essential information concisely.
Take NotesStress can affect your ability to think and retain information. That’s why it’s critical to be as organized as possible and write everything down so you can review it later when you aren’t as panicked. Try to keep it all together in chronological order for easy reference, perhaps in a brightly colored notebook that is hard to lose.
Take notes on your phone, on a legal pad, or in a notebook.
Write down the date and time as well as the name of any doctor, nurse, or social worker you speak to. Note the names of any procedures recommended and drugs prescribed, along with their dosages. Check your spelling.
Research EverythingDespite the scorn some doctors heap on patients who use the internet to research their symptoms, diagnoses, or prescribed drugs, research is essential. Yes, you can scare yourself if you read too much. But in a hospital situation, you need information. This is particularly true because of a problem known as "translational lag." It can take up to 17 years for new research to be translated into actual clinical practice. This means that the drugs or procedures being prescribed are often out of sync with the best available information.
Functional medicine sites will often offer more insight into root causes (and potential interventions) than mainstream medical sites, and that may turn out to be very valuable information.
If you have a diagnosis, make sure you read about it on several different medical sites. There may even be a nonprofit specifically for patients with that condition. If there is, don’t be afraid to call them. That’s what they’re there for.
Ask QuestionsIf there’s anything you don’t understand or didn’t quite hear the first time, ask! It’s your right to be informed, and it’s the doctor (or nurse’s) responsibility to answer your questions.
It’s particularly important to ask about the details of what’s involved in any proposed medical procedure, as well as the risks. Sometimes doctors are so intent on treating a patient, they overlook major problems that are common after some surgeries or drug treatments, including pain or reduced function.
Whenever medication is given, ask what is being given and the dosage. Always check to see if the medication and dose match up with what you were told. If they don’t, find out why. That simple question may save your loved one’s life.
Ask About AlternativesCan something else be done that might have the same effect? What about taking a "wait and see" approach? What are the risks of doing nothing and letting the body heal itself?
You may be able to achieve the desired results with low-level interventions (like vitamin supplements, physical therapy, or acupuncture) rather than more drastic interventions (like potentially addictive prescription medications and surgery). Sometimes the best way forward is a combination of both.
Get Support for YourselfBeing a patient advocate is exhausting, stressful, and insomnia-inducing. But it’s important not to let yourself get depleted. Eat as well as you can, try to sleep, take time to meditate, write in your journal, and practice other forms of self-care. Cry as much as you need to, out of earshot of the patient.
Make a list of friends and family who can help with your children, walk your dog, or sit beside you and hold your hand. Be specific about what you need. Most people want to help others in crisis, but many don’t know how.