As women, we can often face unique challenges within healthcare systems. We may feel dismissed or unheard by our providers, and these feelings have backing in research. A 2018 study identified differences in how doctors perceive pain in men and women. The study found that doctors are more likely to view men with chronic pain as “brave” or “stoic,” while viewing women as “emotional” or “hysterical.” It also showed that physical conditions in women are more likely to be treated as a product of a mental or emotional issue, rather than a physiological one.
Historically, women have been underrepresented in clinical trials, and many diseases have been studied through a male-centric lens, causing problems for women’s health. For example, heart disease has been labeled a “man’s disease” even though it is a common cause of death for both men and women. However, the signs we have been taught to recognize as those of a heart attack are those common in men, not in women. Women experiencing symptoms of a heart attack are often misdiagnosed with panic attacks or stress (1).
These are just a few examples of the obstacles women face in healthcare. (These are not to mention the added complexities of other factors, including race, socioeconomic status, language barriers, and education levels. All this to say, women of various backgrounds are often not afforded the privilege of being understood or heard by their healthcare providers. As such, it is essential to learn how to be your own advocate. Your voice should be heard, and your health matters.
So, let’s learn some how to advocate for ourselves in a healthcare setting. This article will offer you five simple tools to get you started on your journey. Some examples used are specific to pregnant people, but the principles apply to many types of patients. Everyone’s process is unique, and everyone finds different practices that work for them. Take small steps and have grace with yourself as you learn. Now let’s get started!
1. Trust Yourself
Since we view our clinicians and doctors as experts, sometimes we feel we have to acquiesce to their authority. If they say something, we believe them. They know what they’re talking about, right? But remember, only YOU can feel what’s going on inside your body. When it comes to your lived experience, you are more of an authority than your doctor. Just because a doctor may not understand what you’re saying, doesn’t mean what you’re saying isn’t real. Be confident that you know what you’re feeling. If you don’t trust your intuition, you may allow your doctor to dismiss something before it’s resolved. So if you share a concern and they do not seem to understand, try to explain it again, maybe in a different way. Continue the conversation; get a second opinion; ask lots of questions.
2. Prepare Questions & Concerns Before Your Appointment. Write Them Down!
Sometimes, we know what we want to say, but when we get to our appointment, we forget! It’s normal to get jumbled or not say everything you wanted to. Previous negative experiences with healthcare providers can cause patients to feel certain fears and anxieties when it comes to doctor appointments. That’s why writing things down beforehand prevents you from forgetting to mention an important concern.
You can write on a piece of paper, use the Notes app on your phone, or even send a message in your patient portal before the appointment. Do whatever makes you more comfortable! Think through what you want to ask, and make a list of your priorities for the appointment. Remember, you are the patient, so this appointment is all about you. Say what you need to say and ask what you need to ask.
3. Ask Lots of Questions, & Ask for What You Want!
You are the patient–you are allowed to ask as many questions as you want. Your body is the only one you have, so the more you can understand it, the better. Do you want to know why you keep getting headaches, even if they are mild? Ask! Do you want a blood test to check your iron levels and other nutrients? Ask for it! Do you want to measure the placenta in your pregnancy? Guess what you should do… Ask again!
You can ask for the birthing plan you want, about your rights as a patient, for recommended resources to educate you about any relevant issue. When it comes to health education, open-ended questions will help you gather more information than you may have known you needed. Using phrases like, “Can you tell me more about this topic or that issue…” allows the doctor to share as much information as they find necessary or helpful.
4. Be as Specific as Possible
When describing your concerns, symptoms, or whatever else you want to know, specifics matter. These will help your provider do what’s best for you. Imagine you are in your first trimester of pregnancy, and you say, “I’m having really bad morning sickness.” Your provider can interpret that in many different ways, based on their own biases and expectations. But if you tell them, “Every day, I have nausea from when I wake up until early evening. At least once a day, I vomit. Some days more than that. I am feeling shaky and weak, and I’ve lost a few pounds. I’m worried I may be getting dehydrated or not have enough nutrients for my pregnancy; I’m not sure. I keep having to calling out of work. I’m feeling very distressed about it, which might make it worse. What can I do?” The more information you provide, the better your doctor can understand and have a clearer picture of your situation. If you can keep a log of your symptoms–for example, the times and frequency of your vomiting–this too will be helpful for your provider.
5. Bring Support with You
You don’t have to go to the doctor by yourself! If your provider will allow it, bring a family member, partner, or friend back with you. It is especially helpful to bring someone able and willing to advocate on your behalf. Before the appointment, tell them the concerns you want to share with your doctor. If you forget anything or feel dismissed, they already know what you wanted to say. They can help you out. You shouldn’t have to do this alone.
Self-Advocacy in Maternal Health & Prenatal Care
A lot of women feel especially responsible for their health during a pregnancy journey, but are unsure how to make their voice heard. Look for a provider who you feel you can communicate with and who you feel cares about you. It’s okay to switch providers if you’re not happy with the prenatal care you’re receiving. (See this article for tips on switching your OB/GYN during pregnancy.)
Ask for the information you want. If you want details about your pregnancy or explanations on what’s going on with your body, ask for them! You have the right to know. Additionally, you can take notes at your appointments. Keep track of the information you receive and the way your body feels. Bring notes from past appointments to future appointments. The more information you have, the better.
Sometimes, you may feel as though something is off with your body or pregnancy, but you don’t know how to identify what that is. Your obstetrician may reassure you that everything is normal, but you still feel distressed. What should you do? TELL THEM. Say, “I don’t feel reassured. Please keep looking. I know my body, and I know something is wrong. I am very concerned.” Don’t be embarrassed of your level of concern; be honest about it. “On a scale of one to ten, my concern level is at a seven.” You have a right to be protective of your body’s pregnancy, and you know more about your health history than anyone. So ask your questions, whether at your appointment, over the phone, or through a message on your patient portal. Communicate with your provider. Learn as much as you can about having a healthy pregnancy.
At Clearway, we offer free prenatal education classes in Worcester and Springfield every month. You can attend alone or with your partner. Learning more about your pregnancy will help you have an empowered pregnancy experience and entry into the world of parenting.
Be Your Own Advocate Everywhere!
Hopefully this article provided you with key tips on how to advocate for yourself in healthcare situations. However, you can adapt these tools for other areas of your life. At your job, you may need to use your voice to communicate boundaries between your personal and professional life. In your relationships, you might need to set boundaries of physical space, time commitments, or emotional interactions. If you are paying for services or putting money into an investment company, you need to be able to use your voice to describe your goals and limits with how money is spent. Our voices matter everywhere! Your voice matters.
According to Andrew M.I. Lee, JD, self-advocacy has three key elements: understanding your needs, knowing what kind of support might help, and communicating those needs to others (2). Learning how to do this is a process, but it is possible! And we believe in you.
At Clearway, we offer pregnancy confirmation services, options information for those facing an unplanned pregnancy, and prenatal education classes. All our services are free and confidential. If you are at the beginning of your pregnancy journey and need support and information, we are here for you! Schedule your appointment today or call us at 508-438-0144 for more information.
Reviewed by Rebekah B., MSN RN