Do you ever feel like your doctor isn’t listening to your concerns? Self-advocacy goes a long way at the doctor’s office, however, sometimes you can tell your doctor something time and time again that something just isn’t right and they dismiss you. I’ve been there!
When I was in medical school, I was struggling with nightmarish symptoms of Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid gland attacks itself and overproduces its own hormone. At the time though, I had no idea what was going on. When I went to see a doctor, she quickly brushed aside my concerns as stress.
“You’re a second-year medical student, and it’s very common to think you have every disease you’re currently learning about. I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said.
I knew I wasn’t panicking over courses and exams. Like the feisty Louisiana woman I was raised to be, I demanded a full workup and lab testing. It turned out my instincts were right on the money. I had an actual, diagnosable condition: Graves’ disease.
If I hadn’t advocated for my own health and demanded that testing, conventional medicine doctors would have just dismissed me and I may never have got a diagnosis.1
Understanding how to advocate for yourself when making health care decisions is important for women to get the best care. Not only are your health concerns often dismissed as being in your head like mine were, but most of the science behind many standards of conventional medical care also do not include women.
I’m about to give you the tools you need to advocate for your own health and get to the root of your symptoms.
Women’s Health Self-Advocacy
Self-advocacy is so important for women because many aspects of healthcare are ignoring us. Most standards of care are based on male physiology, and most pharmaceutical companies test new medications primarily on men. For example, a 2015 study on Addyi, a medication to boost a woman’s libido, consisted of 25 people… of which 23 were men!23 How can a doctor make an informed decision about your health if the only research being done is on the opposite sex?
Men have been the default standard when it comes to diagnosis, prevention, treatment, medication studies, medical research, and clinical practice. The problem with this standard is that women and men don’t show the same symptoms for many conditions. For example, conventional medicine often overlooks heart disease in women because women’s symptoms don’t fit the classic definition of heart disease in men.
If that isn’t reason enough to self-advocate for your health, we live in a world where 64% of doctors are men. Although they may be competent, a man is never going to know what it’s like to be a woman no matter how much studying he does!
Much like I was told that my condition was all in my head, many of you hear that same statement from your doctor. Rest assured that it is not in your head. I used to tell my patients, “you know your own body better than I do.” It’s true! You know your body better than your doctor and you’re the one who knows what feels right and what’s off.
So how do you self-advocate and get your doctor to listen to you? Here are 7 steps you can take to advocate for your health.
1. Bring Notes
To be an advocate for yourself, you need to be informed and self-aware. Keep a journal and write your symptoms in it. Doctors are limited on time and keeping a symptom journal can help you present information in a clear and thorough way to your functional medicine doctor. The more information you can provide, the easier it is for you to advocate for your health. Track your physical symptoms, menstrual cycle, mood, sleep, and what you’ve been eating in your journal. That information can help your functional medicine doctor pinpoint your symptoms to a hormone imbalance, food sensitivity, or even an autoimmune disease.
It’s also acceptable to do research on your own before seeing your doctor. When reading online articles pay attention to the scientific research that’s referenced and make sure it comes from a credible source. As a general rule, any article or information that has been medically reviewed or marked as science-based is a credible source. It’s also a good idea to check when the information was last updated. That way you can ensure you’re not getting outdated information. Health websites sponsored by a government agency, such as the Center for Disease Control or World Health Organization are also reliable sources. Print the article to take with you when you see your doctor, along with your symptom journal.4
Tracking your symptoms and menstrual cycles can be overwhelming. The good news is there are several apps for your phone that make it simple.
I use an Oura ring to keep track of everything from my activity levels, my steps, and calories I’ve burned to my heart rate, body temperature, sleep cycles, and the quality of sleep I get each night. And the best part is that it’s a piece of jewelry I wear on my finger!
Another one of my favorite apps to use is the Health app on my iPhone. It tracks multiple facets of my health and connects to other compatible apps so that all of your data appears in one location.
Teamscope is another app that allows your doctor or family member to monitor your securely stored data. If you have an autoimmune disorder, Flaredown helps you track and monitor your symptoms. Tracking your symptoms can help you pinpoint how different variables affect your health. CareClinic is another app that offers an option for your physician to access the data remotely. Find what works for you.
2. Listen to Your Body
As I said earlier, you know your body better than your doctor. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.5 Don’t ignore it! Speak to your functional medicine doctor about any symptoms that seem to not go away or start to interfere with you living a normal life. Here are 10 symptoms you should never ignore:6
- Rapid weight loss or gain
- High or persistent fever over 100 degrees fahrenheit
- Chest pain
- Sudden numbness or weakness
- Constant fatigue
- Skin changes
- Abdominal pain
- Unusual headaches
- Shortness of breath
- Depression that won’t go away
- Persistent digestive issues
Self-advocacy is stronger when you learn to trust your instincts. If I would have believed my doctor that I was just panicking over courses and exams, I may never have gotten a diagnosis.
3. Lean on Your Support System
If you are limited in health knowledge consider looking for a health advocate, someone who will offer assistance, education and support so you can make informed decisions about your healthcare. A health advocate can go to your doctor’s appointments with you and offer guidance personalized for you. When you have someone who can help steer the conversation between you and your physician, it can help you advocate for beneficial medical tests and screenings.
Online health advocacy programs are available such as Health Advocate. The services they offer cover the full spectrum of healthcare navigation. They can even offer negotiators to help lower out-of-pocket costs on medical and dental bills.
Friends and family can also serve as a source of support when you visit your doctor. Discuss your symptoms and healthcare concerns with your close friends and family to strengthen your self-advocacy team and bring them with you when you see your doctor. They may think of a question you didn’t consider, and it’s always a good idea to have another set of ears to listen to your doctor’s recommendations.
4. Ask Questions About Your Treatment
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Remember, it is important to advocate for yourself because most conventional medicine is tailored to men. Ask if the medication you’re being prescribed has been tested on women. Ask about the side effects or other treatment options. Don’t settle for the first recommendation if you don’t feel it’s right for you. Rarely is there only one option or solution.
Self advocacy means understanding your treatment options and knowing if your treatment is getting to the root cause of your symptoms, or just masking them. Conventional medicine only treats symptoms. It does not get to the root cause of your symptoms.
5. Coordinate Your Care
The reason to coordinate care between doctors is obvious, however there are obstacles in the American healthcare system.7
- Most healthcare systems are disjointed and processes vary between primary care offices and specialists such as how to make appointments and what to do after seeing a specialist.
- Specialists do not receive clear reasons for why a patient is being referred to them, and oftentimes do not know what tests have already been performed.
- Referral staff deal with many processes and lost information, which means care isn’t as efficient as it should be.
In order to ensure you’re getting the proper care from your doctor, it’s important that your doctors communicate with each other. Getting your primary care doctor to communicate with the specialists ensures everyone is on the same page and you are getting the most effective care.
Keep a list of your doctors and their contact information in your symptom journal for quick reference. Clearing up the lines of communication, rather than playing the game of telephone where information gets lost each time the message is shared will ensure you’re getting the most effective care you can.
6. Get A Second Opinion
We are all human and make mistakes, and doctors are not immune to this fact of life. Some doctors are more aggressive in their treatment whereas others are more conservative, which means treatments and findings they recommend to you could vary from doctor to doctor.
You don’t need a reason to get a second opinion. As a matter of fact, getting a second opinion is a simple way to advocate for your health. Regardless of whether your doctor has recommended surgery, diagnoses you with a disease, or prescribed you a medication you aren’t sure about, getting a second opinion offers many benefits from having a piece of mind and confirmation to a different point of view or treatment plan.8
If you are not convinced that the second opinion is the right option, get a third opinion. The key is to keep advocating for yourself until you are comfortable with your treatment. Here are few reasons to absolutely get a second opinion:
- If you have undergone treatment and your symptoms continue. This could be a sign of autoimmune disease.
- If you are diagnosed with a rare disease.
- If you are not comfortable with the medication recommended by your doctor.
- If your intuition tells you that something is still wrong.
I always recommend getting a second opinion for chronic illnesses, especially if the treatments outlined by your conventional medicine doctor are not getting to the root cause of your condition. Remember, if I hadn’t fought for my diagnosis I may never have discovered that I had Graves’ disease.
Speaking with a functional medicine doctor who will look at your whole body, not just your symptoms is key. They will be able to suggest diet and lifestyle changes that get to the root cause of your chronic illness so you can get rid of your symptoms and reverse your chronic illness.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Find A New Doctor
When I was struggling with rapid weight loss, tremors, and other frightening signs something was wrong with my body, I was disheartened and frustrated when my physician dismissed my symptoms as “medical school stress.” Like millions of other patients before and after me, hearing your doctor dismiss your concerns is not what you want to hear. I stood my ground and fought for my diagnosis.
Some patients aren’t so lucky. I didn’t go looking for a new doctor since mine listened to my request for a complete blood workup. However there are several similar scenarios to mine where finding a new doctor is the right choice.
Talk to friends and family about doctors to see if they have had any experience with them. Word of mouth goes a long way in finding a new doctor. There is also so much information on the internet where you can research and learn a lot about a doctor before you schedule an appointment. If you can’t find reviews or the information you want to know, don’t be afraid to call and ask. It’s also a good idea to check with your insurance company to see if a potentially new doctor is in your network. Most insurance companies also provide reviews and information about doctors in their network.
If you have a chronic illness or autoimmune disease, I recommend finding a functional medicine doctor to get to the root cause of your symptoms. The Institute For Functional Medicine is a great resource to help you find a functional medicine doctor in your area.
It is my goal to help the world achieve optimal health, and it is empowering to know how to advocate for your health just like I did. Now you have the tools you need to advocate for yourself at your doctor and fight for your diagnosis and the right treatment for you
- 4 Ways Women Can Better Advocate For Their Own Health. Carrie Kerpen. Forbes. 2020.
- Medical research has a woman problem. Maya Dusenbery. New York Post. 2018.
- Twenty years and still counting: including women as participants and studying sex and gender in biomedical research. Carolyn M. Mazure and Daniel P. Jones. BMC Women's Health. 2015.
- How to Prepare for a Doctor's Appointment. National Institute on Aging. 2020.
- Listen to Your Body. It’s Telling the Story of You. Hancock Health. 2017.
- 10 Medical Symptoms Never to Ignore. Larna Collier. Healthgrades. 2020.
- Care Coordination. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. 2018.
- Top 5 Reasons to Get a Second Opinion. Sherri Gordon. Verywell Health. 2020.