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Six Ways to Be a Smarter Patient

In this time of COVID-19, it's more important than ever to be your own best health advocate. Here's how.


Anyone who has been following the news knows that the risk of serious illness from contracting COVID-19 rises with age. Therefore, older adults like me need to be particularly vigilant, protecting ourselves by adhering to the well-known safety precautions of wearing masks, frequently hand-washing, and physically distancing.

For us especially, contracting the virus may result in hospitalization, ICU confinement, and being put on a ventilator, all the while being separated from loved ones. No matter our age, being smarter patients and better advocating for ourselves can make a huge difference in the likelihood of completely recovering, or better yet, in preventing getting the virus at all.

I've come up with six basic ways you can be a smarter patient and your own best advocate. I call them "H.E.A.L.T.H." strategies:

Hire your team.

Enlist a care partner.

Ask effective questions.

Learn about your body.

Take charge and control.

Have vital plans in place.

Let's consider each one.

Hire your team. The basic thing you as a smarter patient can do is to see yourself as the central point of your own care and thus enlisting or "hiring" trusted people to work with you to keep you healthy. Are your doctors and other providers compassionate, competent, confident, and candid? Do they work well not only with you but also with one another? You should never feel intimidated, confused, or neglected when seeking care. You have the right to change practitioners if your needs go unmet. It helps to think of yourself as a consumer seeking satisfaction rather than a dependent seeking rescue.

Enlist a care partner. Even if you believe you can manage things on your own, it can be vital to have a relative or friend with you when you go to see your doctor or if you are hospitalized. In these days of COVID, however, such arrangements to have someone accompany you may not be possible. Nevertheless, you should have a person you trust to serve as another pair of ears/eyes during or after in-person contact, especially when telecommunicating with your doctor to make sure you understand and remember what's being said and to help prevent medical errors that can arise. If you're hospitalized and aren't allowed to have anyone with you, know that hospitals have patient advocates on staff who can serve as care partners for you.

Ask effective questions. Your providers rely not only on what they see when they examine you, but on what you tell them about your condition. Be as specific as you can when describing your symptoms and prepare two or three questions that get directly to the point about what concerns you. Be ready to report anything that doesn't seem quite right, even if you don't think it's related to your condition. (Your doctor might see a connection that you don't.) If any test or lab work was done in advance of your appointment, check with your provider's office to make sure that those results have been received. And it's important to ask about the purpose, risks, and costs of any newly prescribed medications or treatments.

Learn about your body. Regardless of how well your doctor knows you as a patient, you are still the person who best understands how you move, feel, and react on a moment-to-moment basis. Your health-care providers rely on you to be aware of the changes in your body and health status and to let them know in a timely manner. A big way to help your team is to work with them to keep the following "numbers" in check: HDL and LDL cholesterols/triglycerides, blood pressure, blood glucose (sugar)/A1c, and body-mass index (BMI).

Take charge and control. As a smarter patient, this is the most important thing you can do. Be proactive about the care you receive. Always feel free to ask your provider to: 1) listen attentively without interrupting to what you have to say, 2) speak directly to you rather than, or in addition to, whoever accompanies you, 3) slow down, repeat, and/or use simpler language when speaking to you, and 4) give you enough time to read and sign consent forms. Being in control also means being a responsible patient. Know your rights, share your concerns, follow agreed-upon instructions, and track your progress. Sign on to your provider's online portal system and contact your doctor in a timely way if you experience side effects to medications. Seek additional help if you need it. This includes getting a second opinion, to which no competent and confident doctor should object.

Have vital plans in place. Now, more than ever, it's important to have "that conversation" with loved ones and your doctor concerning the kinds of emergency and end-of-life care you want. Make sure you have an Advanced Directive (Living Will) in place and have appointed a Health Care Power of Attorney. Also know the purposes of the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) forms.

One last thing:

There's been a lot of disturbing coverage in the media --- and especially on social media --- about the expendability of old people in this pandemic. For example, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas has said that older people should consider sacrificing themselves to COVID-19 for the sake of saving the economy. Older adults are NOT disposable. Health care should not be meted out based solely on a person's age, and we should never accept such a strategy as moral or even pragmatically valid.

Hospital and other emergency workers are struggling to care for every patient that comes through their doors or into their ambulances. To help these dedicated workers do their jobs effectively, we as smarter patients have the responsibility to be as informed and collaborative as possible if and when we find ourselves in their care.

In the meantime, let's apply the wisdom we've acquired over years of experience by adhering to those scientific protocols supported by reputable medical experts. And let's continue to be role models of self-advocacy for all generations, keeping H.E.A.L.T.H. always in mind.


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