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Make Your Doctor Your Partner in Health

Whether you're sick with the flu or there for a physical, chances are you'd rather be shopping or watching football than visiting your doctor.

It's no picnic being a patient. But as long as you have to be one, it pays to make the most of it. That means taking an active role in your health and working in partnership with your doctor. When you do, you receive more thorough care, you're more apt to follow through with treatment and you help cut the risk for medical mistakes.

"Studies have shown that patients who play an active role in their health care are more likely to have better health outcomes," says Judith Greenfield, Ph.D., R.N., founder and president of the Healthcare Communication Project in Stone Ridge, N.Y.

Patients as consumers

A lot of trends are helping to turn patients into consumers: the Web's wealth of information, drug-company ads and insurance plans that ask workers to pay more of their medical bills. As a result, patients who want to can be more involved in their care. While some doctors resist, many more welcome a true partnership with patients.

"An active role is a preventive one, so pay attention to your health," says North Carolina internist Michael Richardson, M.D., author of Health Basics: A Doctor's Plainspoken Advice About How Your Body Works and What to Do When it Doesn't.

Know your health history and risks, and write them down for your doctor. "If you have specific medical issues, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, monitor your readings, symptoms and medications," says New York pulmonologist Francis Adams, M.D., author of Healing Through Empathy.

"Make an effort to learn about a particular health concern by asking your physician about it," Dr. Greenfield adds. You can find additional sources from reliable Internet Web sites, books and magazine articles.

Get the facts

Learning about your condition allows you to better weigh the benefits and drawbacks of a treatment plan. You can balance the recommendations from your doctor against your own needs and expectations. Keeping the dialogue open between you and your doctor allows you to make decisions together, says Margaret Fitzpatrick, R.N., coauthor of What to Ask the Doc: The Questions to Ask to Get the Answers You Need.

Building a partnership with your doctor isn't always easy. During your visits you may feel sick, worried, vulnerable, pressured or intimidated. You may be overwhelmed by too much information. If you feel overwhelmed, bring along a family member or trusted friend who can help you ask questions and write down the advice your doctor gives you.

The right doctor will welcome your questions, give you time to discuss issues, and foster an environment of openness and support. A strong rapport and shared values can kick-start a partnership, but to keep it going, you and your doctor must respect and trust each other. Like any relationship, the one with your doctor also takes time - and it takes work. When disagreements or misunderstandings arise, you have to speak up.

But it's worth it. "You're the one who's experiencing your condition, and who'll bear the consequences," says Dr. Greenfield. "Partnering with your doctor is really in your best interest."

Don't wait until your health declines, and you need that relationship, to start building it with your doctor. Do it now, so you can rely on it from here on -- in sickness and in health.