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How to Take Charge of Your Health Care Decisions

Maneuvering the health care system can be overwhelming, especially if you are ill. After twenty-seven years of caring for a medically complex son, I have learned how to navigate personal health care management.

1. Consider both traditional and alternative treatments

To gain control over your health, consider the pros and cons from both traditional and alternative treatments to help you decide what path best suits your individual situation. Your solution may fall in one or the other, or, have a blend of both.

After years of travel and lifting Michael in and out of a wheelchair, I had some lower back issues. A neurosurgeon recommended surgery. My chiropractor prescribes an adjustment once a week. But after doing my research, I’ve opted for yoga and have never felt better. I’m doing everything I can to hold off back surgery for as long as I can. I still get adjustments, but I don’t have to go as often. The yoga is doing the job. It’s far less expensive, less invasive, and a lot more fun.

2. Understand The Perspective of Your Health Care Professional

The health care professionals you encounter will give you advice based on their own specific expertise. If you’re having trouble sleeping, a medical doctor may prescribe a sleep remedy while a nutritionist might ask questions about your eating patterns, diet and exercise. An orthopedic surgeon is more likely to recommend back surgery than a chiropractor.

While all are schooled professionals, they have different perspectives on wellness. One recommendation may be more appropriate to your needs than another—all depending, of course, on the degree and nature of your medical issue.

Don’t assume that one’s doctor’s advice is the end all. You don’t need run around town getting advice from every specialist, but there is a great advantage in understanding your doctor’s perspective. This can give you greater clarity on the direction to take.

3. Take responsibility for your health

Your health care professionals build a treatment map based on a combination of what they understand of your situation and their own expertise. The best advice I can offer my clients is to look for medical professionals who are willing to listen. The better they listen, the more they understand equating to more appropriate treatment options.

However, your health care provider is a guide, not God. It's impossible for them to keep track of all the issues related to your illness. Trusting your doctor is one thing, handing over control of your life and wellbeing is quite another.

I’m often surprised by how little people know about their specific illness or the host of medications they’ve been prescribed. But thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to look up any ailment, disease, or medical side effect.

It’s your responsibility to know what you are taking and why. You need to seek out the best advice and follow that advice according to what makes sense for your own health.

4. Learn how to best communicate with your health providers

When my son was a baby, I learned very quickly that how I described what was going on was crucial to the medical attention he received. Michael was born with a very rare metabolic disorder. I couldn’t even pronounce it much less understand what it meant.

I had to learn quickly. I practiced the pronunciation of words like “electromicroscopy” so that I could easily converse with Michael’s doctors and get the information I needed. My son’s life depended on it and so might yours.

It’s your responsibility to understand what is going on with your body. Health care providers are really smart people. However, they can’t steer you in the right direction if you’re giving them the wrong information.

5. Start with the end in mind

When you define what outcome you’re after, you can make the best decisions possible. In my son’s case, we came to accept that there was no cure for his specific metabolic disorder. With that realization, we began to make different medical decisions. We focused on quality of life and sought out doctors who were appropriate to that outcome.

Near the end of Michael’s life, his medical needs drastically changed. We then needed doctors who would respect our need to nurture and care for him in ways that maintained his dignity. We did not, for example, agree to tube feeding because we knew that would be against Michael’s wishes.

Dealing with medical issues, large or small, is never easy. This is your body. Your mind. Your life. You have a responsibility to honor it well. 

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. November 4, 2014