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June 23, 2015

How to Be Your Own Advocate at the Doctor's Office As You Age

The relationship between doctor and patient has evolved over the years. It once was largely one where the doctor led the conversation and the patient followed his or her lead. Now, it’s more of a partnership with the patient asking for clarification more often about medicines, health issues, treatments, and more.

As you age, your relationship with your doctor will likely become more important. Perhaps you will have more medical issues or medications to consider. Or, perhaps you don’t have more, but one of them will have a bigger impact on your lifestyle. In any case, it’s crucial you have the right physician for your needs, one who makes you feel comfortable and who communicates well with you.

To help, the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, created a 48-page guide titled A Guide for Older People: Talking With Your Doctor. If you’re looking for a new physician or at least considering changing doctors, then the first section of the guide is well worth reading. For now, though, we’re highlighting recommendations on patient advocacy.

Tips for Advocating for Yourself

First, before you leave for the doctor’s office, make a list of your concerns and prioritize them. Some people feel more comfortable taking a friend or family member with them for support, while others prefer the privacy of a one-on-one conversation. Do what works best for you.


If you’re having new or bothersome symptoms, describe them to your doctor as precisely as you can. What do they feel like? When did they start? Are they constant? If not, what triggers the next bout? What makes them better or worse? How do these symptoms affect your daily routines?

Some symptoms can be embarrassing to describe, but it’s important to be honest. Also be straightforward when telling your doctor about all medications that you take, including non-prescription over-the-counter ones and herbal remedies.

Be honest about how much you eat and what you eat. Do you drink alcohol? If so, how much and how often? Do you get enough sleep? Do you smoke? If so, how much? How often do you exercise? What stress are you under and how do you respond to those stressors?

Here is an overview of how to approach a conversation with your doctor:

  • Be honest
  • Prioritize what you need to discuss
  • Stick to the point

It can be frustrating when your doctor seems rushed, especially if you’re worried about a new symptom. The National Institute on Aging recommends that, in those circumstances, you say something like this: “I know you have many patients to see, but I’m really worried about this. I’d feel much better if we could talk about it a little more.”

Remember, even the best doctors can’t answer all questions. Your situation may require more testing or more time may need to pass for observation. You may need to see a specialist. But, if you feel as though your doctor isn’t able to help you, consider switching doctors.


If your doctor recommends tests, here are some questions you should ask:

  • Why are you ordering these tests?
  • What steps are involved?
  • How should I prep for the tests?
  • Are there any side effects or other dangers associated with them?
  • How quickly can I expect results?
  • What will we learn from these tests?


If you receive a diagnosis, consider asking these questions:

  • What may have caused this condition?
  • Will it be permanent?
  • How is this condition treated or managed?
  • What will be the long-term effects on my life?
  • How can I learn more about my condition?


When a new medication is prescribed, here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • What are the common side effects?
  • What should I pay attention to?
  • When will the medicine begin to work?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • Should I take it at meals or between meals?
  • Do I need to drink a whole glass of water with it?
  • Are there foods, drugs, or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Will I need a refill?
  • How do I arrange that?

We highly recommend that you read the entire report. Remember, we’ve only provided highlights here.

Being your own advocate at you appointments not only ensures you get the information you need to stay healthy, it can even help improve the doctor-patient relationship. If you’re concerned about being able to digest all the information presented to you at an appointment, consider writing down questions beforehand or taking a friend or family member with you. Discover more ways you can advocate for yourself at the doctor’s office and how to choose the right provider in this guide.

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