I was hit by a car 10 years ago. It changed my life. Not just because I lived in pain for five years but because while in the midst of recovery, every health care provider I saw had a differing opinion on how to care for me. It wasn’t like I had an internal health problem that was elusive or resulting in conflicting medical test results – I had herniated and fissured spinal discs… That’s ALL! I mean, yes, they were excruciatingly painful, but not rocket science. The anxiety that resulted from being tossed left and right by well-intentioned doctors, physical therapists, psychologists, acupuncturists, massage therapists and chiropractors served to cripple me more than the pain itself. But being left adrift in the middle of the sea does have a way of forcing one to find a way to swim to shore all by themselves, doesn’t it?
I’ve been symptom free for five years now, not thanks to any one provider but because I learned, for the first time, how to advocate for my own health. Through the years I’ve come up with resources and tips for clients to help them do the same. My highest hope is that you can use this advice to find your own unique road map to better health. If you don’t find it for yourself, I can almost assure you that no one will try on your behalf. So, let’s get you started!
The road blocks that keep people from properly advocating for their own health are manifold. Let’s review a few main ones….
For starters, there’s SO much health information out there these days. You’ve heard the term “Dr. Google,” I assume? Alas, we can be sent down an unending virtual funnel of information overload that only serves to make us paranoid, confused and convinced we can self diagnose. Google can be equal parts friend and foe, just like all the blogs, magazines and social media sites. How does a person learn to advocate for their health when it’s so confusing how to even take the first step? Welcome to the world we live in!
Secondly, a large majority of health professionals (from fitness experts to surgeons) will have a “provider bias.” In other words, they have a specific perspective or approach that they trend towards as a solution for health concerns brought their way. Case in point: An extremely talented personal trainer I know would (unfortunately) put all of her clients, both male and female, on a similar bulking/cutting program involving specific nutritional parameters and weight lifting regimens. While it’s true that this style of training likely suited many of her clients, it’s highly unlikely that it was the best approach for every single one of them. Another example: A chiropractor who believes that spinal correction and releasing nervous system pressure is the cure-all for internal health ailments when, in fact, some individuals will continue to suffer even when in perfect alignment.
Lastly, many people simply don’t have the time, energy or confidence to actively pursue their health or to second-guess medical opinions. It takes a LOT of effort at times. For example, I’ve known of several people who have had to follow-up with doctors to get answers regarding sensitive medical tests when the doctors got the results weeks earlier and didn’t carve out a minute to call and inform the patient. It’s also very hard to trust our gut instinct that something is wrong when providers (and sometimes even scans) tell us otherwise. I know of multiple women whose breast cancers weren’t initially identified through scans and others who have been told to “wait and see” how ailments progress only to discover months or years down the line that action or treatment should have been immediately undertaken.
Alas, all of these challenges come up because people – both providers and patients/clients – aren’t perfect, and neither is medicine. We’re all just doing the best we can with the tools at our disposal. So, the real question becomes, “how can I better advocate for myself?”
Becoming our own health advocate involves several things. Here’s a short list:
- Asking well-prepared questions of providers
- Finding second, third and even fourth opinions
- Knowing where to look online for credible health information
- Balancing advice; traditional vs alternative, western vs eastern, etc.
- Coming up with our own solutions
- Finding the confidence to trust your gut
Let’s dive into more detail…
Asking Well-Prepared Questions of Providers
One sure sign of a good health professional is when they are willing to sit, listen and patiently answer your questions. We ALL have health questions (don’t pretend you don’t!), so it’s important that we seek answers through the professionals who are qualified to give them to us.
One of the most frustrating medical experiences I’ve had was when I was pregnant with my first son. I had so many questions and always felt rushed by the OBs at the office. I never felt that my questions were given thoughtful attention and it made me feel guilty for asking them. Not surprisingly, I remained pretty ignorant on many fronts and didn’t know that I could speak up for myself and tell them “no” when they started doing frequent internal cervical checks that I’m convinced led to my premature rupture of membranes and son coming into the world a month early. My current OB, though? Wow… WORLD of a difference. I just passed the point in pregnancy when I delivered my first child and feel confident that the second kiddo is staying put for at least a few more weeks – and most of it is thanks to my current, *new* OB! She takes the time to listen to me and answer my questions. She never insinuates that I’m taking too much of her time (which I totally know that I am, hah) and she is thoughtful in collaborating with me to come up with an individualized plan for my health and pregnancy (including ZERO internal checks that could throw me into preterm labor again).
Have your questions ready and find someone who will listen. Don’t hesitate to schedule follow-up appointments to seek additional answers. If the professional is available via phone, email or health portal then don’t be afraid – contact them! Especially if this saves you forking over another co-pay or deposit for an unresolved issue. Use the access points offered to you and don’t let up on communication until you feel comfortable doing so. There should be NO closed doors in the health realm and if you find yourself looking at one then it’s time to find a new professional to work with. Period.
Finding Second, Third and Even Fourth Opinions
There’s a reason that the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic and UCLA Medical Center are all highly reputed. It’s not just that they have the most technologically advanced tools for cancer screenings and treatments that makes them so great. Part of what makes these centers so well trusted and successful is the teamwork and collaboration efforts of the doctors who work there. It’s well understood that certain cancers can be confusing and need a multi-pronged treatment approach; one that is best found when multiple voices and experts weigh in to craft a custom treatment plan. Very few health professionals can claim to have all of the answers on their own.
One big reason to consult various professionals is so that you can try out different treatment options. This works best when you either have a gut instinct that your current treatment plan or program isn’t right for you (and therefore isn’t worth your time and investment) or when you have given your current program all of your earnest effort and are not seeing the desired results. Another big reason to shop around for different opinions? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you don’t have respect for the health professional – or they don’t express respect for you and your needs – then onward you go! There are other fish in the sea, I assure you.
Knowing Where to Look Online for Credible Health Information
There’s no denying that finding credible information online can be a doozy. Top this fact with the rise of fake news and it’s hard to know where to turn. Here are a few ideas to get you started in your virtual hunt for answers and solutions:
- Ditch Dr. Google and opt for Google Scholar (!!!) This works just like regular Google except when you put in search terms you will get populated results from peer-reviewed journal articles (aka where the real research and findings are published – not someone’s subjective interpretation of them). It can be a tad overwhelming at first but with a little self-educating you will learn how to search for relevant terms and scan articles for key takeaways.
- Trust the big guns (and occasionally your fav blogger, hehe); long-time established health websites are going to offer objective information over subjective or anecdotal. Examples: Mayo Clinic, Medscape, WebMD, Livestrong, to name a few. Wikipedia also remains a straightforward place to find information that has been combed through and objectively vetted by the masses. A couple of my lesser-known favorites (but highly credible and evidence-based): Precision Nutrition (this is one of the top nutritionist certification programs on the market and they have free articles in their blog section) and Evidence Based Birth (great articles AND podcast to inform mothers-to-be)
- Look at what governing medical bodies, associations and foundations are recommending – the latter two may not always take into account the most recent, emerging research, but you can bet that they hang their hats on what has been well-reviewed and widely accepted in the relevant industry. Examples: World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health, The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG), American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, American Dental Association, American Heart Association
- Find one or two sites you love and trust so you can avoid the temptation of reading articles from 10 different websites on a single niche subject (unless you want to…I’m admittedly a bit of an info junkie and do this often…). But be warned: Clinging to your subjective bias has downfalls at times, too. I could rattle off dozens of popular “health” Instagram handles that are highly subjective, ill-informed, and alas, being widely accepted as true and reputable, when in fact they’re not. This can be tricky territory and we’ve got to ask ourselves if the information is merely serving our subjective bias or is holistic and credible.
Balancing Advice; Traditional vs Alternative, Western vs Eastern, etc.
It can be daunting when one kind of health practitioner pushes pills our way while another insists that with the right kind of diet we don’t any prescriptions. Equally confusing is when we’re told by one doctor that we need surgery and by another that regular physical therapy is sufficient to pull us out of pain. Go to a western-trained doctor and you will likely be told that improving heart health depends on cardiovascular exercise and eating a heart-healthy diet…go to an eastern-influenced guru and he will tell you the key to improving cardiac function lies in specific yoga poses and pranayama (yogic breathing practices).
Who do you listen to? Whose advice do you give a fair shot? Who’s right?
Answer #1: It depends.
Answer #2: They all are.
Allow me to elaborate…most professionals have good reasons for taking the approach that they do. Under specific circumstances, some of them may be right on the money while others may miss the mark. This is largely because it depends on the person being treated, their lifestyle, mindset, commitment to a health plan, and unique health situation. So, that aforementioned person who needs help with heart health may be overweight, sedentary and have a family history of high cholesterol. This person should definitely get on a cardio exercise plan and begin eating a more heart-healthy diet. But what about someone who already eats pretty well and regularly exercises but has high blood pressure due to excessive stress and sleeplessness? She may benefit most from learning the recommended yoga poses and breathing practices. You can start to see how taking multiple angles and approaches to health solutions into consideration may be the wisest thing you can do. This will help you find your own way. Your own solution…
Coming Up with Our Own Solutions
Some of the best fitness, wellness and health plans are those that don’t fit into a program designed for the masses. As successful as she is, Kayla Itsines’ “Sweat With Kayla” program is NOT the fitness solution for every woman on the planet. And frankly, I’m sick of women thinking that it is! The paleo diet is NOT the holy grail for everyone’s health. And as wonderful as exercise is, it’s NOT the cure-all for the everyone’s blues just because it releases endorphins. This is where therapy comes in, friends.
I started healing from getting hit by a car when I decided to glean little bits of advice from each of the roughly dozen health professionals I worked with instead of committing to just one’s treatment plan. From one chiropractor, I learned that my upper back needed to be stronger to support my lower back (where the herniated discs were). From a physical therapist, I learned the power of muscular release through dry needling (my multifidus needed some TLC!). From an older-and-wiser fitness professional, I learned how to correct my foot alignment and strike so that both sides of my body balanced out again. From a psychologist, I learned the power of creating a safe, mental space for myself to overcome PTSD. From a nutritionist, I learned how to better craft my diet to become anti-inflammatory. And from an acupunturist, I learned how to harness vital energy while simultaneously letting go of toxic grief.
As you can see, my healing was not straightforward…at least not in the sense that I could turn to one person to reveal all the answers and solutions for me. It took time, patience and acting as my own personal investigator to solve the mystery.
Finding the Confidence to Trust Your Gut
If you feel that you need a second opinion, get it. Trust your gut.
If you find that a health professional just isn’t working for you – even if you think they’re a good person and you like them enough to maaaybe hang around longer – move on. Trust your gut.
If you find the best solution for a health problem is a combination of both modern medicine (aka prescription or over-the-counter drugs) and alternative medicine (ex: herbal supplements and an Ayurvedic diet) then enjoy the benefits of both. Trust your gut.
If you have the nagging feeling that something is wrong with your body even though not one but two doctors have said you’re in perfect health then keep searching until you find someone who will be your teammate in the investigative process. Trust your gut.
It’s not easy to learn how to speak up for ourselves in this impressively vast network of health professionals and insurance plans but it’s critical we start practicing. We all need to learn to trust and depend on our own voices for our health. The point isn’t to turn a blind eye to quality advice or completely distrust health professionals – the idea is to learn how to take proactive steps towards living our best lives.
Become your own health advocate!!!
Yours in health and wellness,