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Advocating for yourself with your healthcare team

Wooden singpost with "help, support, advice, guidance" arrows against blue sky.

Advocating for yourself is an important part of managing your overall healthcare needs. Medical professionals – including family doctors, specialists, nurses, social workers and dietitians – are individuals, just like all of us. While highly educated in their field of specialization and deserving of the utmost respect, they are not invincible: they are human, and they can make mistakes.

Healthcare professionals are also learning that they must be aware of the many aspects of a person’s life that can influence their medical condition. This is where advocacy comes into play. For example, a person with diabetes may need medication if their A1C levels are very high, but may not be able to afford it. However, the patient may be reluctant to explain that they can’t purchase insulin and strips because they’re unemployed, and all their available funds are spent on feeding and caring for their children. The doctor or nurse may not ask why the patient isn’t taking their medication but, rather, go into “lecture mode” about how the person should be managing their diabetes. If the doctor or nurse were to ask in a non-judgmental fashion the reasons for the high A1C level, they would understand that the person needs compassionate diabetes supplies or new medical coverage.

Another example is when a patient feels depressed and needs medical help to improve their mood. A specialist may not think to ask how they feel because they have only a small window of time per patient (about 15 minutes, according to medical guidelines set by the health ministry) and, instead, focus only on the medical issue at hand.

Advocating for your needs – in any situation – is important to receiving the necessary understanding and assistance you require to improve your health. When you advocate for your overall health, you are also communicating to healthcare professionals how crucial it is that they listen and understand the complete needs of their patients, not just the medical aspects. This awareness can only improve the relationship between healthcare professionals and patients by fostering an atmosphere of trust and respect; it will also improve the medical care that patients receive, since they will feel comfortable advocating for themselves and asking for help.

Some tools that you can utilize to advocate for yourself include:

  • If you advocate for yourself and the healthcare professional does not seem to respect or understand your needs, find another specialist within the medical team and/or locate a professional who exhibits the qualities you are seeking. Start by consulting with a member of your healthcare team with whom you feel comfortable discussing this change. This is an important step, since this specialist will likely be caring for your medical needs for the rest of your life.
  • If you feel you need urgent medical care or assistance and are not getting it from your healthcare team, go to the emergency department of the nearest hospital.
  • All hospitals employ a patient advocate; you can talk to them about the quality of healthcare you feel you are receiving. Call your hospital’s switch board for the name and contact information of the patient advocate.
  • Patient Ombudsman is an Ontario organization that investigates patient and caregiver complaints and facilitates resolutions – without taking sides – regarding patient care and experiences in public hospitals, long-term care homes and community care access corporations.
  • The Type 1 Diabetes Think Tank Network has developed a tool called the “Clinical Conversation Guide” that you can use when talking with a healthcare professional. Although the tool is aimed at people with type 1 diabetes, it can also be used as a guideline for people with type 2 diabetes who are advocating for themselves with healthcare professionals.

Advocacy is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that all of your healthcare needs are being met. For more information about diabetes advocacy, click here.

About Cheryl Harris-Taylor

Cheryl Harris-Taylor BSW, MSW, RSW is a social worker at Tridec at Women’s College Hospital. During her time in this position, she has become very involved in the psychosocial and behavioral issues of diabetes, helping a diverse population cope and adjust their lifestyle to be able to manage their diabetes. Ms. Harris-Taylor received her Masters of Clinical Social Work degree from the University of Calgary. After graduating, she worked in Calgary in Child Welfare and then moved to the Netherlands where she established her own private practice. Five years ago, she and her family moved to Toronto where she started work in hospital settings, first in psychiatry, then in the prenatal department, and later working with seniors, advocating for better services. Ms. Harris-Taylor enjoys challenges and stimulation in her life. One specific accomplishment was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2009.

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