7 Steps to Make Sure You Get the Best Medical Care

Make the most of your doctor visits with these tips.

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Be your own health advocate

We’d never skip our child’s doctor’s appointments or ignore her high fever, but we can be blasé about our own well-being. However, with physician shortages across the country and busier-than-ever doctors’ offices, advocating for our own health has never been more important. Read on for seven ways to keep your health at the top of your priority list.

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Medical care step #1: Use a schedule

Whether you prefer a digital or paper-based calendar, keep it updated with appointments with your family doctor, your dentist, your optometrist and any other healthcare providers. And, if possible, create alerts on your digital device for upcoming appointments. Set a reminder at least a week ahead of a scheduled doctor’s visit in case you need to reschedule, which will prevent missed appointments and potentially long waits to be re-booked. Check out the 10 things doctors secretly wish they could tell you.

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Medical care step #2: Be proactive

“A proactive patient is one who does more than just walk into the exam room and wait for me to ‘fix them’ or give them a ‘once-over,’?” says Dr. Kimberley Foster, a Victoria-based family physician whose website, Savvy Health, focuses on women and health. “They take an active interest in achieving the best health possible, even if it means hard work like quitting smoking or changing their diet.” Also, keep a small journal handy for any questions or concerns that you think of between doctor visits, and take it with you to your next checkup. That way you can get the most out of your allotted time with the doctor. These are the diseases doctors can actually detect through smell.

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Medical care step #3: Speak up

There will always be that symptom you wish would go away on its own because you are mortified at the idea of talking to your doctor about it—perhaps it’s something “down there.” (Worried? Here’s what doctors want women to know about endometriosis.) But doctors have heard and seen it all and they don’t get embarrassed—so you shouldn’t, either. Besides, if it’s something serious, being embarrassed will be the least of your worries. “I’ve had to reassure countless patients that there’s a good chance I’ve seen, or heard, something much worse,” Foster says. “But the one person you must tell is your doctor, because we can’t help if you don’t tell us what’s going on.”

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Medical care step #4: Get your medical records

Regardless of whether you have serious medical issues or require nothing more than a regular checkup, it’s smart to ask your doctor for a copy of your medical records—and to read through them. While your health records belong to your physician, the information contained within the records is yours to access, according to the Canadian Medical Association‘s policies on medical records (but you should realize you may be charged by the doctor’s office for the cost of the copies). And having that information at your fingertips makes good health sense. It can be especially helpful in emergency situations when it might be hard to recall your past medical history, or if you are seeing a new healthcare provider such as a nutritionist. Find out why this holistic nutritionist believes eating is all about moderation.

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Medical care step #5: Follow up

When your doctor’s office says, “We’ll call you if there’s a problem,” ask when the test results are expected. Make a note of the date, and then call the doctor’s office to ask for them, advises Foster. Don’t feel you are “bothering” them; it’s more important to be sure of the results of tests. A 2011 study found 26 percent of Canadian women with abnormal Pap tests didn’t receive follow-up, possibly due to lack of communication between patients and physicians. Remember, communication is a two-way street, and no system is perfect. Here are some health myths even doctors believe.

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Medical care step #6: Trust your gut

Kat Inokai’s debilitating symptoms—diarrhea, weight loss and exhaustion—went on for years. Multiple doctors told the then-24-year-old from Toronto that she was “fine,” sent her to psychotherapy and prescribed medications for stress. She accepted their findings even though the treatment didn’t seem to be working. But when severe rectal bleeding pushed Inokai to ask her doctor for another opinion, she was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease… seven years after her first appointment. She wishes now she’d had the confidence to trust her instincts. “You don’t know how to push back as a patient,” says the mom of a three-year-old daughter, who now manages her Crohn’s with daily medication. “You want to believe the doctor will guide you. But you have to trust your own intuition.” Don’t miss the 11 things your doctor can tell by just looking at you.

Foster agrees. “If things are not improving, go back to your doctor and give her an opportunity to reassess, or request a referral to a specialist,” she suggests. “It’s not easy to be assertive, but it’s important to be clear with your doctor.”

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Medical care step #7: Get informed

Doctors can’t possibly know everything, yet we often expect them to. It wasn’t until Joanne Devlin nearly died in the ER that she was finally diagnosed with Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder). She had been to countless doctor’s appointments trying to find the cause for her worsening symptoms, which included stomach pain and exhaustion. Frustrated by diagnoses ranging from a virus to depression, Devlin kept pushing for answers. “You know your body best,” says Devlin, 36, an Edmonton mom of two. “Doctors are not experts on every possible disease, so ask questions and do your own research.” And make sure you get your research from credible sources.

Adds Foster: “At the end of the day it’s your health. Don’t let politeness or fear stop you from being your own advocate.” Next, find out why women aren’t more worried about heart disease.

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