The average time spent during an appointment with a primary care provider is approximately 17 minutes. (9) With limited time spent face-to-face with your healthcare practitioner, you may be wondering how you can maximize your time with them and get the most out of your appointment.
Being able to advocate for yourself at the doctor during visits is an important skill to have. After all, you know your body best, and it’s often up to you to voice your concerns and raise questions for the betterment of your health and well-being. Read on to learn about the importance of self-advocacy and learn some simple and actionable tips to use the next time you see your healthcare practitioner.
What is self-advocacy?
Self-advocacy is defined as the ability to communicate, negotiate, or assert one’s preferences, needs, and values. (10) Being able to effectively self-advocate allows you to speak up about your personal preferences, make sure your needs are met, and obtain the power to actively participate in your healthcare decisions. (5) Generally speaking, self-advocacy involves knowing what your needs are, understanding what type of support you need, and communicating those needs. (10)
Self-advocacy is a skill that you may inherently have, or it may be a skill you need to learn and develop over time. A number of different factors can influence a person’s ability to advocate for themselves such as:
- Communication skills
- Demographics (e.g., age, income, education, health status)
- Level of health literacy
- Personality traits (e.g., level of self-awareness, conscientiousness, openness) (10)
Why is self-advocacy important?
Self-advocacy enhances patient empowerment and promotes active involvement and shared decision-making. (5) Research demonstrates that patients who are more involved in the decision-making process related to their treatment plan and overall care are more likely to achieve better health outcomes. (1)
Where can you practice self-advocacy?
Self-advocacy has real-life applications far beyond your practitioner’s office. Learning how to advocate for your needs, preferences, and beliefs extends into all facets of your own life, including at home, school, work, in public settings, and beyond.
How to be an effective self advocate
Self-advocacy is a valuable skill that can take some time to fully understand and put into practice. Use the tips below to guide your next visit with your provider.
1. Find a healthcare provider you can trust
The practitioner-patient relationship is dependent on trust and communication. Finding a provider who helps you feel safe, comfortable, and understood is a critical first step. When looking for a new provider, here are some things to consider:
- Do you have a preference regarding your provider’s age, sex, race, or religious affiliation?
- Do you prefer visiting a small private practice or a larger group practice with multiple providers?
- Does the provider speak your language?
- Does the provider specialize in addressing your specific health concern(s)?
- How can you communicate with the provider between appointments? Are they available by phone, email, or direct message through a patient portal?
- Is it important to you that the practitioner is associated with a hospital or medical system?
- Is the practitioner covered by your insurance provider? (7)
Looking for a healthcare practitioner? Ask around for recommendations from friends, family members, or other health professionals, or refer to professional organizations that offer “find a practitioner” resources.
2. Come prepared
Prepare for your appointment by first compiling all relevant information pertaining to your health, such as a list of any medications and supplements you’re taking as well as your complete medical history, health habits, and test results from other providers. Some of this information may be requested on intake forms prior to your first visit. Take the time to thoroughly fill out these forms so that your provider has a complete picture of your history and current health status.
Before arriving at your appointment, write down your health concerns, as well as any symptoms you’ve been experiencing. Make sure to note how and when your concern began, what worsens and improves your symptoms, and what you’re currently doing to reduce your symptoms (if anything). Taking the time beforehand ensures that you don’t forget to mention something important during your appointment.
3. Educate yourself
Having a good understanding of your condition or health concerns can help you be a more efficient self-advocator. (5) Individuals with higher levels of health literacy, defined as the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information, are more likely to be engaged in their treatment plan, helping them stay on track to achieve their health goals. (5)
Learn more about your health by seeking out credible health information from your practitioner or from other reputable sources. Be mindful of where you’re getting your health information from as mis- and disinformation is widespread online. Examples of credible online sources include:
- Government agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Health Canada)
- Medical schools and hospitals (e.g., Harvard Medical School, Mayo Clinic)
- Online journals and research databases (e.g., PubMed)
- Professional or nonprofit organizations (e.g., Environmental Working Group (EWG), American Heart Association) (6)
4. Ask questions
If you have questions regarding your health concerns, symptoms, test results, or treatment plan, don’t hesitate to ask your provider. It can be helpful to write down your questions before your appointment. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your questions aloud, you can instead hand your questions to your provider for them to answer. In addition to the questions you prepare before your appointment, be sure to ask for clarification if anything during your visit is unclear. (4)
5. Take notes
Bring a pen and notepad, or use a smartphone, to jot down any important information from your visit. This may include new medications and supplements, lifestyle and dietary recommendations, and next steps.
6. Speak up
If you have hesitations about your practitioner’s recommendations, don’t be afraid to calmly and politely voice your concerns. Speaking up allows you and your practitioner the opportunity to come to a mutual agreement regarding your treatment plan.
If you’re feeling unheard or you’re not finding the answers you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion from another practitioner.
7. Bring a support person
If you’re uncomfortable or unable to communicate your concerns to your practitioner, consider bringing a support person, such as a parent, spouse, or caregiver, to your visit. While in most cases support people cannot make health decisions for you, they can be there to take notes for you or ask questions on your behalf.
8. Be aware of implicit biases
Implicit biases are unconscious beliefs about certain races, ethnicities, genders, or other characteristics that can influence one’s behaviors, judgements, and decisions. Research shows that implicit biases held by practitioners can affect their behaviors, the quality of care they deliver, and their treatment recommendations, all of which can contribute to care disparities and may negatively impact health outcomes. (2)(3) Many populations are vulnerable to implicit biases and discrimination including:
- Disabled individuals
- Elderly individuals
- Individuals of lower socioeconomic status
- LGBTQ+ individuals
- Minority ethnic populations
- People with low health literacy
- People experiencing mental illness
- Women (3)
Even with the best intentions, your practitioner may have implicit biases that can potentially impact the quality of your care. If you have concerns and you feel safe doing so, voice your thoughts with them. If you’re met with resistance or if you feel unheard or disrespected, it might be best to find another provider with whom you feel more comfortable with.
Did you know? According to a study, black women are less likely to advocate for themselves in medical settings than white women. (11)
As a patient, you have rights protecting you against discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex and sexual orientation, age, and disability; however, some of your protections under the law may differ based on where you’re located. (8) You deserve to be heard and treated with respect by your healthcare provider. If you experience unlawful discrimination or harassment, considering filing a formal complaint with a governing body such as the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. or the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Canada, or your state or local health department.
The bottom line
Advocating for yourself in healthcare settings can help you get the most out of your visits. Developing self advocacy skills isn’t easy, but with some practice, you can come prepared to your next appointment with the confidence to effectively communicate with your practitioner.
- Brabers, A. E. M., Rademakers, J. J. D. J. M., Groenewegen, P. P., van Dijk, L., & de Jong, J. D. (2017). What role does health literacy play in patients’ involvement in medical decision-making? PLOS ONE, 12(3), e0173316.
- Chapman, E. N., Kaatz, A., & Carnes, M. (2013). Physicians and implicit bias: How doctors may unwittingly perpetuate health care disparities. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 28(11), 1504–1510.
- FitzGerald, C., & Hurst, S. (2017). Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: A systematic review. BMC Medical Ethics, 18(1), 19.
- Flumer, C. (2022, May 18). Breaking down barriers, talking to your doctor. Patients Rising. https://www.patientsrising.org/breaking-down-barrierstalking-to-your-doctor/
- Hagan, T. L., & Medberry, E. (2015). Patient education vs. Patient experiences of self-advocacy: Changing the discourse to support cancer survivors. Journal of Cancer Education, 31(2), 375–381.
- National Institute on Aging. (2018). Online health information: Is it reliable? https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/online-health-information-it-reliable
- National Institute on Aging. (2020). 17 questions to ask when choosing a new doctor. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/17-questions-ask-when-choosing-new-doctor
- Office for Civil Rights. (2022). Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/section-1557/index.html
- Tai-Seale, M., McGuire, T. G., & Zhang, W. (2007). Time allocation in primary care office visits. Health Services Research, 42(5), 1871–1894.
- Thomas, T. H., Donovan, H. S., Rosenzweig, M. Q., Bender, C. M., & Schenker, Y. (2020). A conceptual framework of self-advocacy in women with cancer. Advances in Nursing Science, 44(1), E1–E13.
- Wiltshire, J., Cronin, K., Sarto, G. E., & Brown, R. (2006). Self-Advocacy during the medical encounter. Medical Care, 44(2), 100–109.