Being a vigilant health care consumer is a challenge. We want you to be well-armed with strategies for getting the best possible medical attention:
Before a visit to the doctor, prepare a list of questions in writing, and consult it during your appointment. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality offers a helpful list of questions to ask before surgery, questions that can be adapted to other medical situations. (Visit ahrq.gov or write to AHRQ, 2101 East Jefferson Street, Suite 501, Rockville, MD 20852.)
Don't leave a medical appointment until all your questions have been answered—even if the doctor seems to be getting impatient. It's the physician's job to explain, and your job not to say you understand when you really don't.
It's very easy to tune out bad news or complicated information. If you're getting test results, bring a friend or family member with you to the appointment to take notes. Or tape the session; a good doctor shouldn't object.
If you're discussing a new diagnosis or treatment, you'll probably want a second opinion; a good doctor will encourage you. Get physicians' names from your primary care doctor, your state's medical society, or your health insurance company.
Bring a list of all the medications you're taking, and the dosages, including herbal remedies, vitamins and over-the-counter drugs. If it's appropriate, bring copies of your X-rays.
When you're seeing a new doctor, make sure that your old doctor has sent your records ahead. If there's no time to mail them and you're too sick to pick them up yourself, ask a friend to do it.
To spare yourself aggravation, call the office before your appointment to see whether the doctor is running late.
If a doctor calls you by your first name, feel free to use his or hers. You'll be making it clear that you'll accord the doctor the same degree of respect that he or she offers to you.
A few days before any lab test, ask for an instruction sheet so you can properly prepare for the test.
Once you've been diagnosed, talk to other people who have the same condition. You can also do research on the Web. Medline Plus (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus) is a good place to start. Smart patients become experts in their illness.
In the hospital, treats are a great way to soften hearts, lift spirits, and make yourself real to the hospital staff. If, for instance, someone brings you brownies, leave some in the staff room for the nurses and doctors. If your window ledge is overloaded with flowers, present a bunch to the grumpy aide on the night shift.
Stay pleasantly feisty by reminding yourself that the doctors and nurses aren't doing you a favor by taking care of you; you're paying for their services. You're entitled to good care—and a lot more. To view a copy of the patients' bill of rights, visit: www.consumer.gov/qualityhealth.