June 3, 2019

Dr. Darcy McMaughan has a master’s degree in educational psychology from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in health services research from the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

Dr. Darcy McMaughan’s research focuses on systems of care for people with disabilities across their lifespan. She is currently working on assessment and evaluation related to Medicaid managed care expansion in Texas, care for adults and children with complex health needs, chronic pain management and antibiotic stewardship in long-term care. Dr. McMaughan has a master’s degree in educational psychology from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in health services research from the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

I have spent years evaluating the health care system we live with, particularly the cost of care, the quality of our care and how we access care. Some of that information points to great things, but we also have our failings. Navigating our siloed health care system can be tough. But, before I get into that, I would like to start with some pieces of data. Did you know that 90 percent of physicians spend less than 25 minutes with their patients? What about that, in the United States, 62.1 percent of all bankruptcies are because of medical bills? Poor health costs the U.S. economy $576 billion per year. Of that amount, 39 percent, or $227 billion, is from two sources: “lost productivity,” or when we can’t go to work because of illness; and “presenteeism,” which is when we go to work but illness keeps us from performing at our best.

However, this is not a story about the U.S. health care system or its failings. This is a story focused on human connections and helping each other navigate health care. It’s about having and identifying what I call an “accountabilibuddy,” who is a trusted person that can and will advocate on your behalf. It’s also about how to be your own accountabilibuddy in the absence of a trusted other. It’s about taking as much control as reasonable over your experience with the health care system by maintaining your health information through documentation. And it’s about advocacy. We alone as patients cannot “fix” the system. It’s a huge ship to turn, but we can empower ourselves and each other to interact with the health care system in a way that increases the likelihood that we will receive the treatment we need when we need it.

I have outlined three steps below, cleverly coined “The Big Three,” to guide you through becoming your own health care advocate.

1. Bring an “accountabilibuddy”

Depending on your stage of life, this person can be a parent, partner, sibling, child or close friend. Having an advocate in your provider appointments fulfills so many functions. You have a witness to the interactions and therefore somebody who can recall what the provider says or advises. They can even take notes while you focus on your discussion with your provider. You also have a historian who can help you fill in the blanks or provide another perspective.

2. Document your health

There are many smartphone apps that are created specifically for documenting your health. You can also use a journal or the notes section of your smartphone. When you are documenting your health, it can be helpful to think in terms of another “Big Three”: symptoms, timelines and treatments. Answer questions such as, “What are your symptoms,” “when do they occur,” and “what treatments are you using”.  

3. Advocate for yourself

Advocating for yourself, while empowering, can also have negative outcomes. Consider that discussing your health or the health of a loved one can be an emotional task. So, how can you positively advocate for yourself or another? Here’s another “Big Three” tips:

  1. Keep an eye on your emotions and emotional level. ​You can practice this anytime. In fact, it’s good to practice before an appointment if you think it may be challenging. Check in with yourself. Develop tools for managing your emotional state. If you feel your emotions rising, then ask yourself, “Is this really a crisis?” If it’s not a life-and-death crisis in the moment, then you have time to think logically and use all of your problem-solving skills.
  2. Gather outside information. Get information from friends, family and even the internet. But maintain a healthy skepticism. Be open to alternative understandings or outcomes and be sure to get another perspective on the situation. Avoid “all-or-nothing” solutions and thinking as you gather information.
  3. Prepare questions and answers in advance. Run through appointments in advance with your accountabilibuddy. Try to think about what questions the providers might have so that you can quickly provide those answers during the appointment. This is really about planning and visualizing what you think your interaction with the health care system will look like and what you want it to look like.

Remember, ninety percent of physicians spend less than 25 minutes with their patients. Physicians are often constrained in their time working directly with patients, which could have an impact on your health care outcomes. So, use The Big Three to make those 25 minutes efficient, effective and productive to help you plan, protect and grow your health.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to share general information on topics related to health care advocacy. This article should only be used or referenced as a source for general advice. Visitors/readers should seek advice from a professional representative to better understand the best plan for their individual needs.