The Helper

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Becoming an Empowered Patient

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Have you seen the commercial? A woman asks questions of everyone she meets, everywhere she goes--her server at the restaurant, a clerk at the store. But when she's sitting in a gown at her healthcare provider's office? Not a peep. When given the opportunity to ask questions, she is silent.

No one knows what has happened in the background; whether the woman is silent due to a previous unpleasant experience or just afraid to question the "expert." Nonetheless, the commercial speaks volumes on the importance of being an "empowered" patient. All too often the stories regarding patient- provider experience with herpes simplex virus (HSV) are fraught with themes of powerlessness not empowerment.

Yet while providers play a significant role in the psychological adjustment those with genital herpes typically undergo, patients in several prior surveys noted dissatisfaction with their experiences. Previously, ASHA sought to address this issue by examining what education and counseling messages providers needed to have when addressing genital herpes with patients. While this research helped to inform provider knowledge, there still leaves the question of what the patient can do to empower themselves during these interactions.

What are the keys to being an "empowered patient?" Some tips from a recent piece in Black Enterprise offer a good starting point. The first step is education. Seek out creditable resources on your health condition and become a sponge. As you find yourself soaking in this knowledge, jot down any questions or need for clarification that arise. Having these written down allows you to have these readily available when you have your next doctor visit.

The next step is to hesitate before taking that first available appointment. While you want to be seen as soon as possible, when you are seen may play a part in how much undivided attention your doctor has available to you. As healthcare provider Dr. Janet Bivens of Kendrick Family Practice in Atlanta suggests in the piece, the optimal times to get your provider’s undivided attention are first thing in the morning, right after lunch or their last visit for the day.

Another important step is reframing. Transition the patient-provider experience from viewing the experience as a subordinate and a superior. Instead, view it as a partnership; no longer should patients just do what the provider says and not voice their concerns instead voice those concerns. View this interaction as a partnership, where you both have investments in your health. Go over those questions you jotted down earlier and if your provider doesn’t have time during the visit to cover them, ask to be called when they are less busy.

As with any partnership there will be some give and take. As the patient, you have to give honest answers to your provider’s probing questions. Take for example the subject of sexual health. The stigma surrounding sex will sometimes alter how one responds to questions regarding sexual history. However, you must be honest with your provider if he or she is going to be able to treat your condition adequately. Share your health history including sexual history. Even if there are acts you would never describe in front of your father, mother or spouse this is not the time for silence.

As part of reframing your role, never be afraid to get a second or in some cases third opinion. You are in the partnership with your provider long term so make sure it is a cohesive one, one where you feel your concerns are taken into account and adequately addressed, where your provider is knowledgeable on your condition and available treatment, and where you feel respected for taking an active role in your care.

But what if you have taken all the steps above, yet feel powerless with your healthcare provider but don’t know how to get that next opinion? Take the same steps you would in business. If you are unhappy with your current partnership, network, network, network. Seek out others in your HSV support group and ask for local healthcare provider recommendations. If you don’t have a group, try asking others on HSV message boards or read patient reviews of healthcare providers online. While the review may not specifically address how this provider approaches sexually transmitted infections, it may give a good picture of their bedside manner and patient-provider interaction in general.

In order to move from powerless to empowered, you must truly believe that you are an expert. You have lived with the body you have all your life so you know it pretty well and you are seeking out a partner, another expert, to assist in keeping that body healthy; one just as vested in this investment as you.


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