Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, nursingschoolsnearme.com

Ageism is pervasive in all aspects of our culture, and healthcare is not immune. Just ask Laura Fern, who for two years braved a host of increasingly debilitating symptoms, some of which fit with her existing medical conditions while others did not. With each baffling symptom came another medication (which Fern politely accepted), but few answers. Sound familiar?

Finally, her son stepped in, concerned that as an older person, his 74-year-old mom wasn’t being taken seriously or getting the holistic care she deserved. However, he lived in another province, which made day-to-day caregiving a challenge, so they hired a healthcare navigator to advocate on her behalf.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Don’t be afraid to push for answers about your health. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, nursingschoolsnearme.com

The squeaky wheel really does get the oil: Within a couple of months Fern had an amazing new doctor with a passion for caring for older adults; she met with several attentive specialists and participated in a complete medication review, reducing her medications to four from 12.

While most would agree that everyone has the right to be heard and treated with equal consideration, let’s be realistic. In a complex system, sometimes you need to make a little noise to get the health outcomes that you, or those you care about, deserve.

It sounds simple but in truth, healthcare advocacy can be an arduous process. Here’s how to go from passive patient to active advocate:

  1.  Be firm and tenacious. Persevere, even when faced with challenges. There are always options, but sometimes it’s up to you to find them.
  2. Nurture your relationship with your family physician. They are your health “quarterbacks” and essential to arranging referrals and staying on top of your big-picture health.
  3. Maintain your own medical records. With no universal system in place, you need to keep track of all health information, including appointments, treatments and medications.
  4. Be prepared for appointments. Arm yourself with a list of questions and items to discuss so that nothing gets missed.
  5. Become the expert. Learn everything about your condition and treatment options.
  6. Communicate your concerns and wishes. No one can read your mind, or express how you feel or what’s important to you. Speak boldly but respectfully.
  7. Push for a second opinion. If you have questions or concerns about a diagnosis or treatment plan, seek a second opinion—it’s your right!
  8. Stand up for yourself. Get the answers you need without feeling intimidated or rushed.
  9. Ask for help. Being your own advocate is not always easy. Draw on friends or family members for support. A private healthcare navigator can also advocate on your behalf.
  10. Plan ahead. Give others the tools to advocate for you by preparing key documents, including power of attorney for personal care and an advance care directive.

Big-picture healthcare advocacy is alive and well, with patient-centred groups working across the country to bring people’s voices to the forefront in everything from research to care and policy. To share your story, or for more about how you can get involved in improving the system for everyone, start with Patients Canada.

Virginia Miles is a healthcare navigator who owns Compass Healthcare Solutions.