Written By: Roberta Codemo
This is a skill every woman needs to learn when it comes to advocating for their health care needs within a health care system that consistently overlooks women’s health concerns.
For centuries, it was believed that men and women were the same so there was no need to study women, meaning women’s diseases were often overlooked, misdiagnosed, or remained a mystery. Today, medical gaslighting—or gender bias—still often leads physicians to dismiss a woman’s health concerns.
Female hysteria was once a common medical diagnosis in women. In fact, the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word “uterus,” and women were often considered “emotional” or “hysterical.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that women were even included in clinical research trials, and still today, research uses male animals and male cell lines. In fact, physicians still know little about female biology. This lack of knowledge often leads to poor health outcomes for women, especially Black and Latino women.
Women deserve to be heard and need to advocate for themselves when they feel their physician isn’t listening to them. Women know their bodies. If something feels off, you deserve a physician that will work with you to find the cause rather than just accepting what your physician is saying. While women are often brought up not to question a physician’s authority, it’s imperative to keep pushing for an answer because your health is at stake.
Below I’ll teach you how to advocate for your own health needs to get the health care you deserve.
When You Feel Your Physician Isn’t Listening
Nowhere is a woman more vulnerable than when she’s sitting in her physician’s office on an exam table wearing only a paper gown. She’s in pain and wants to know what’s causing it. How would you feel if your physician walked in the room and, even before they heard the reason for your visit, discounted your symptoms or, even worse, told you it’s all in your head? Shocked, maybe?
A physician-patient relationship is a partnership built on trust – trust that your physician will listen to your health concerns and take the time to arrive at a diagnosis. When that trust isn’t reciprocated, it can often lead to a misdiagnosis or even no diagnosis at all.
If you feel your physician isn’t listening to you, speak up. When it comes to your body, you’re the expert. If you won’t fight for an answer, who else will? Don’t hesitate to ask for a second, or third, opinion, as many as it takes, to find a physician who will listen to you and take your complaints seriously.
Below are ways to make the process easier.
Do your prep work. Before your appointment, write down the reason for the appointment, the symptoms you’re having, and when they started. Be as specific as possible. What were you doing when the symptoms first started? What kind of pain is it? How often do you have the pain? Is there anything you do that makes the pain better or worse? Have your story ready when your physician walks into the room.
Don’t be afraid to research your symptoms. While you may not want to tell your physician that you used Dr. Google, knowing possible conditions, treatment options or diagnostic tests lets you better communicate with your physician and have questions ready to bring with you. Bonus points: If you notice your physician isn’t listening, you can redirect their attention back on you by asking: “Did you understand what I said?”
At the time of the appointment, make sure to address your biggest concerns first. You may only have 15 minutes with your physician, so make the time count and focus on your most pressing concerns.
Be honest. Building trust is a two-way street. Make sure to let your physician know about any changes in your health because what your physician doesn’t know can hurt you. Having an open relationship can make a difference when it comes to the quality of health care you receive.
Don’t be afraid to tell your physician about your personal habits (e.g., alcohol use, smoking habits, illicit drug use, sexual activity). Not only does this help your physician get a better picture of your lifestyle and overall well-being, but it can guide them when it comes to diagnosing what’s wrong with you.
Ask questions. If you don’t understand something, ask, and keep asking until you do understand. This not only shows your physician that you’re engaged in your health care but leads to better health outcomes because you’re more likely to follow the treatment plan.
What Skills Are Essential For Self-Advocacy
The first time you advocate for yourself and demand your physician address your health needs can be scary. But by taking an active role, you get the care that you deserve. Knowing how to be your own self-advocate is a learned skill, but once you learn, and the more you do it, the more confident you’ll become.
Who makes a good self-advocate? Women who are curious with high health literacy skills who want to learn more about their health care and be an integral part of the team are more likely to be their own self-advocate. Don’t despair if this doesn’t sound like you. You can learn. It just takes tenacity.
Good communication skills help build common ground with your health care team. This includes asking questions, discussing your needs and preferences, and sharing any challenges or concerns you have. It’s when women don’t feel their health needs are being met that they feel unheard.
When To Hire A Professional Patient Advocate
There are times, however, when you might need to hire a professional patient advocate, especially if you’re facing a complex health care diagnosis like cancer. During those times having someone by your side who can help guide you through the health care maze and make sure you get the care you need can give you peace of mind.
It’s important to develop a rapport with the person you hire. You want someone, ideally, with experience working with someone with your condition, and who is knowledgeable, organized, and compassionate.
After all, this person is going to have access to your medical care. You have to trust their abilities to not only collaborate with others involved in your care but to help you understand your treatment options.
A patient advocate might serve as an information resource, help you track your treatment plan, help you research treatment options and explore the pros and cons of each, deal with your health insurance company or the billing departments of the medical facilities where you receive care or even help you schedule medical appointments or find a specialist.
A professional patient advocate can be worth their weight in gold and free up your time so you can rest and focus on healing rather than spending hours on the phone trying to find non-emergency transport to take you to a physician’s appointment. It’s their job to address your health needs with your health care team.
Learning to advocate for your own health needs leads to better health outcomes. Having a physician that you trust makes all the difference. Learning to be your own self-advocate is a skill but you can learn and develop it and become a collaborative part of your health care team. After all, it’s your health that’s at stake.
Meet the Author Roberta Codemo Roberta Codemo is a stage three endometrial cancer survivor who writes about women's health care and gynecologic cancer. She is a passionate patient advocate who believes all women should have a voice when it comes to their health needs.