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How to Talk to Your Doctor With Confidence: A Guide to Patient Autonomy

How to Talk to Your Doctor

Paper gowns, sterile wallpaper, and cold, dark examining rooms—going to the doctor can sometimes feel uncomfortable or intimidating. Add to that concerns about your condition and contemplating how to best approach and talk to your doctor, the entire scenario can cause some unwanted angst.  

It’s easy to feel out of control and afraid of the unknown; new environments can do that, especially when they involve your health. But, what if you could feel more empowered, prepared to talk to your doctor, and ready to face your health journey ahead? 

Gaining a deeper understanding of patient autonomy and self-advocacy can give you more control over the situation, and enable you to make more informed decisions (without fear and intimidation). It will also prepare you to talk to your doctor with confidence and assurance. 

Let’s talk about why patient autonomy is essential and how to exercise self-advocacy when talking with your doctor.

What is Patient Autonomy and Why is it Essential?

Years ago, doctors would prescribe treatment and devise medical plans, and patients would willingly comply without question. Today, patients want more control over their health, so instead of blindly trusting professionals, they aim to make 100% sure they are getting the highest quality healthcare. 

What is Patient Autonomy and Why is it Essential?

Patient autonomy simply means that you are making the final decision about your healthcare. As an example, patients are exercising autonomy when they: 

  • Get second and third medical opinions
  • Seek alternative health treatments to traditional medicine
  • Research conditions and associated symptoms
  • Research doctors’ expertise in specific conditions before choosing them

Patient autonomy is not just a movement; It is also a matter of medical ethics. According to The American Medical Association (AMA) Journal of Ethics, expressing respect for patients’ autonomy means acknowledging that patients who have decision-making capacity have the right to make decisions regarding their care, even when their decisions contradict their clinicians’ recommendations. It requires physicians to respect patients’ autonomy by giving them the information needed to understand the risks and benefits of a proposed intervention, as well as the reasonable alternatives (including no intervention), so that they may make independent decisions. 

patient autonomy

What is Patient Self-Advocacy? Are you an Advocate for Yourself?

According to an article in the Journal of the Central States Communication Association, patient self-advocacy is defined as “representing one’s own interests within the health care decision-making process.” Patients with self-advocacy may seek health information and may interact effectively with their health care providers, and as a result, report greater patient satisfaction with their physician and their health care experience. 

When you exercise autonomy, you are advocating for yourself (self-advocacy). You feel confident taking on the charge of researching and finding health-related information, whether on doctors or your condition. When you meet with your doctor, you feel confident enough to ask questions, and even disagree if you think necessary, because you have done your research and prepared direct questions. 

The dynamic shifts from doctors dictating every step of your healthcare journey to you not just receiving expert advice and guidance, but also interacting with providers to get answers and make educated decisions based on the data you’ve gleaned. 

Good doctors also want to involve patients and consider their individual health goals when devising a treatment plan. The doctor-patient relationship becomes more collaborative rather than one-sided, with active listening on both sides. This collaboration increases patient satisfaction and can strengthen the patient-doctor relationship because trust enters the scene. 

The Challenges With Self-Advocacy

Does self-advocacy challenge the doctor-patient relationship? 

Navigating the line between trust and autonomy is difficult. Doctors may expect patients to trust their expertise and discourage them from performing research. This plight is understandable as the web is full of disinformation, leading the untrained eye astray. However, patients know their bodies and comfort level with healthcare, and physicians are not aware of this information if they are not informed. You can feel comfortable communicating with doctors if you have questions or concerns about your treatment options. Your doctor will want to devise a treatment protocol that takes into consideration your lifestyle and concerns.

Self-advocacy is not as scary as you may think

Self-advocacy is not as scary as you may think

Self-advocacy may seem scary to some. It can feel intimidating to speak up to your doctor. But good doctors want to involve patients more, and they value patient autonomy. When their patients are more informed, it results in a better understanding of the diagnosis and treatment options, and a more open, honest, and collaborative patient-doctor relationship. 

Doctors want you to take an active role in your health. As reported by Self.com, Larry Altshuler, internist and author of Doctor Say What? notes that there’s a term called “white coat silence” that means a patient doesn’t talk much and doesn’t ask questions, for reasons like embarrassment or intimidation. Altshuler states, “Communication is one of the most important aspects of medical care.”

When we asked oncologist Dr. Nitesh Paryani, MD, how he feels when patients challenge his diagnosis or express concerns with treatment options, he said he supports patients who speak up.

“I absolutely support patients speaking up and expressing concerns with treatment options. As a cancer doctor, one of my top priorities is ensuring that the patient’s voice is heard and that they have an equal say in the decision-making process. The reason medicine will never truly be replaced by computers is that it truly is as much an art as it is a science. While we can come up with guidelines for nearly every disease, at the end of the day, what is right for one person may not be for another; a healthy forty-year-old will approach cancer treatment very differently than a frail 97-year-old. I always encourage an open dialogue in which I provide patients the information they need to come to the decision that’s best for them and their families.”

Dr. Nitesh Paryani

How to Become Your Own Health Advocate and Talk to Your Doctor

Self-advocacy means you start taking matters into your own hands. You listen to expert guidance and opinion, but ultimately the decisions are up to you. 

Exercising this behavior may feel counterintuitive to what you are used to, so we want to help you with some action steps so you don’t feel intimidated to talk to your doctor. The best doctors will guide you and champion your health, but the more informed you are, the better decisions you will make. 

Know before you go

The more prepared you are, the more you will get out of your doctor’s visit. Before you see your doctor, narrow down your possible conditions so you can better communicate your concerns. If you do not know your condition, visit our Symptom Checker to narrow down your potential diagnoses. This is not a diagnostic tool, but merely a resource to help you gather more information and feel empowered to ask the right questions.

Find the right doctor

Before you can talk to your doctor, you need to find the right one—a provider you can trust with your condition. Knowing the proper diagnosis can also help you find the right doctor. If you need assistance, MediFind is a cutting-edge software tool that gathers the most recent medical data to help you find the world’s top doctors for specific conditions. You can also learn about more treatments, recent studies, clinical trials, and breakthroughs to bring to your doctor and discuss.

Medifind result fibromyalgia
Ths doctor finder and information page for the condition Fibromyalgia

Ask the right questions

Ask the right questions to get the right answers. Here are some questions to ask your doctor so you can properly advocate for yourself:

  • How can I research my condition more before I start treatment? (The doctor should be able to answer this)
  • Can I be referred to a specialist for additional testing? This question may be necessary if you haven’t yet received quality of care.
  • When should I expect your office to contact me about the referral? (If you are referred to a specialist) 
  • How can I access more information about my diagnosis?
  • Do I have alternative treatment options?
  • What are the side effects and success rates of this treatment?
  • Is it possible that my symptoms could be associated with another condition?
  • When should I follow-up if my symptoms resolve?
  • When should I follow-up if my symptoms do not resolve?

Additional tips for your doctor visit

Bring support: If you are concerned about your ability to speak up and exercise autonomy, bring a loved one with you to the appointment for moral support and to act as another set of ears. 

Prioritize: We mentioned to come prepared with questions, but you may have a lot to cover in a short time. Prioritize your top concerns, so you get your most pressing questions answered first. 

Take your time: You also shouldn’t feel rushed. If you don’t understand an answer, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. If you leave your appointment perplexed, schedule another appointment, or contact the doctor outside of office visits. If you still do not get answers, it may be time to seek a second opinion. 

Be honest and don’t hold anything back. Some patients may feel ashamed of their lifestyle choices and keep them from their doctors. But, this prevents health providers from giving an accurate diagnosis. Your doctors can only help you if you tell them the whole story. Your doctor’s appointment is not a test and the doctor is not there to judge your choices; you are simply seeking help. Never be ashamed of your lifestyle habits; the right doctors may also help you with them if you want.

Ask for a second opinion. You have the right to a second opinion, especially if you are having trouble finding the right diagnosis, or your condition is particularly complex, serious, or rare. Should you wish to pursue this option, politely tell your doctor you’d like a second opinion. Read more on how to navigate asking your doctors for a second opinion without offending them. Need a stellar second doctor? Find a high-quality doctor using our Second Opinion Finder.

It’s OK to speak up if you disagree. Your doctor prioritizes your health and will welcome your concerns, so your treatment is tailored to you. Expect respect, and if you don’t get it, you have the right to consider another opinion. A good doctor will support your right to exercise autonomy and welcome open dialogue. During your visit, assess the doctor’s style and make sure it matches yours. A doctor should never bully you into taking specific medication or undergoing a particular treatment. If you feel bullied, remain respectful, but seek a second opinion. Many excellent doctors care about your well-being and want to develop a patient-doctor relationship that benefits you. 

You Are Your Own Best Health Advocate

Doctors advocate for you. Your family and friends advocate for you. You also need to advocate for yourself. The best health outcomes result from a union of patient autonomy with compassionate, guided care. This type of doctor-patient relationship is a win-win scenario, and it starts with you getting empowered to advocate for yourself and the people you love.

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