Navigating a complex healthcare system: a patients survival guide

By Kimberly O’Brien, RPN

HALDIMAND—Do you ever go to a physician appointment and forget half the questions you needed answered? Felt rushed to conclude your appointment, or was unsure of next steps? These are all questions I hear over and over from patients and family members everywhere, whether they are in hospital, community, or long-term care. 

I am hoping that this article will provide patients with the tools to empower them to gather information and an understanding of their own health, within the current state of our healthcare system. 

Time is valuable 

Patients in general feel that their time is not valued and vice versa. Doctors have a multitude of tasks in their day and with increasing patient loads and technology changing all the time, physicians have very little time in the day for small talk. This is unfortunate as gone are the days a physician could really get to know patients, their circumstances, and families. Often these are some of the determinates of a patient’s healthcare needs and they are overlooked. 





When making a physician appointment

Do your research; Google does not know everything, but sometimes if you are scheduled for a procedure you can research and know what to expect. This knowledge may give you more detailed questions to ask at the appointment.

Write it down

Write your questions down. Leave spaces for answers so there is no confusion what answer was for what question when you leave. Ask for paperwork. Call ahead of your appointment and ask that they have your documents waiting for you when you arrive. Once you arrive, ask for them and wait until they are in your hands. 

Your health record is yours – ask for bloodwork, CT scan, MRI, X-ray results, or where to find them. Many patients are challenged with not having access to any or limited technology devices. Your physician should be able to print this information for you. 

Owning information about your health provides you with a record and timeline of your health history. 

Bring a family member

When we are asking questions, often the information provided is in terms delivered so quickly we don’t seek details. We leave with more unanswered questions or gaps in what we heard. Having a family member or caregiver gives us a second set of ears and someone to hear the information with the ability to ask questions we may have forgotten.

Repeat it out loud

Repeat what you heard back to the physician to be sure that you understand the information provided. If you’re not sure, ask them to break it down in layman’s terms. 

When referrals are required

Request the referred physician’s name, address, and phone number. This way if you do not receive any follow up info, you can call yourself. This will cut out the middleman and be more time efficient. 

Carry a copy of your medication list, allergies, diagnosis, and any specialists you have seen in your wallet. You will almost always be asked if you have a copy of your current medications and be asked about any diagnoses. Be sure every time you get a new prescription you ask for the current medication list from the pharmacist. Never assume your physician has sent all your medical information to the referred physician. Often, they will send a quick note, but details may be missed.

If you have had a procedure completed, never leave without an instruction or detailed next-step sheet. That information should have details of what medications to start and stop with dates. Any follow up information should be with all the contact information, as well as appointment time and date. It should detail what to expect and who to contact if any side effects or perceived complications occur.

The information provided is to better assist you with navigating the current state of the healthcare system.  

Kimberly O’Brien is a Registered Practical Nurse from Hagersville currently working as a Manager of Clinical Practice. She has 13 years experiences working in pharmaceutical research, health clinics, hospitals, community healthcare, and long-term care. She has submitted this article as part of her efforts to help empower people to take control of their health.