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Find out how to reach your doctor between visits. Questions to ask include: What is the very best way to contact you in an emergency? Can I e-mail my questions to you or your staff? What phone number will get me to a person with decision-making capabilities? If your treatment could leave you in considerable pain, you'll want to be sure you can reach the physician in person.

Ask for a copy of your medical record, including doctor's notes and X-rays. Expect to meet some resistance, says Clay. "Say, 'It's my record, I paid for it, I own it, and I need a copy for my file.'" Be prepared to pay at least a few bucks for copies of X-rays, she says. Better yet, look for a medical practice that keeps electronic records ready for printing, says Katz.

When surgery is indicated, consider the physician's experience. Like any professional, a surgeon gets better with practice. If the operation is complex yet commonplace, like angioplasty, choose a surgeon who's done hundreds of the procedures, says Katz. If the surgery is so new there aren't hundreds of satisfied customers, try to find a surgeon who has done at least a dozen of the operations.

If you still feel intimidated, let Doumas, a soft-spoken single mom, firm your resolve. "In my heart, I just knew what I needed, and I kept pressing," she says. "You have to be your own advocate."

Catherine Guthrie lives, writes, and teaches yoga in Bloomington, Indiana.

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