Three Steps to be an Empowered Patient

image of man on hospital bed

In the American hospital system, it’s easy to fall victim to the routine of standard medical treatment. Yet we should not simply accept what healthcare throws our way. Nearly 30% of healthcare is wasted or harmful and shouldn’t be done. What should you look for in a hospital situation so that you can be an empowered person rather than a passive patient?

1. Be informed.

Have a list of questions to ask your care provider. Ask about medications, procedures, diet, recovery and anything else you need to know. Make sure you understand the benefits and risks of each procedure and exam your doctor recommends. Ask what the evidence is for benefits and harms.

When providing palliative or end of life care, doctors must balance the sometimes conflicting priorities of providing their patients with hope and having them endure needless treatment.

“We throw more medical treatment at patients who are on their way to dying, which keeps them in a difficult situation for much, much longer,” said Joanne Lynn, MD, author of a recent study on an increase in pain, depression and confusion for people at the end of life from 1998 to 2010. “We’ve increased the number of people put on ventilators and kept in hospitals, and we simply have more treatments that are possible to offer.”

Doctors may be hesitant to empower their patients with the truth. This leads to difficult but important conversations being delayed until the last days or hours of life, when it is sometimes too late to come to terms with the process or reduce suffering.

Sometimes the goal in medical care is finding a cure, but other times the goal is to come to place of peace and contentment – to heal even when cure is not possible. Deep conversations help the doctor understand the patient’s thoughts on what healing means for them at the end of life.

2. Be empowered.

Know what you want and be able to communicate it to your doctor and family. Focus not just on medical care, but also personal, spiritual and emotional needs. Make sure you have a doctor who will listen.

One common resource is called Five Wishes and it helps individuals plan ahead and prepare a living will.

These resources also help the families hold true to their loved one’s beliefs. This is especially important if the person becomes too ill to advocate for themselves.

Palliative care professionals can help improve quality of life for patients whether the goal is to manage symptoms, prepare for a complicated treatment plan, or transition to the end.

3. Have an advocate.

Once you know what you want for your care, having a strong advocate helps ensure that your best interests are upheld. This can be a family member or trusted friend—anyone who understands your wishes, is informed, is someone with whom you are comfortable, and who will protect your interests. If you’ve been to a hospital recently you know that this is important not just in end of life care but for anyone receiving treatment.

Accepting help or having an advocate doesn’t mean weakness or that you are giving up control. Instead it means that you have another person on your team to help. An advocate can ensure your questions are answered, keep track of copies of test results, scans, x-rays, and keep a record of all the personnel who are caring for you that day.

Learn more about hospice and palliative care in a recent podcast and article.