Be Your Own Health Advocate | Boulder Longevity Institute

If you’ve ever been around a toddler, it doesn’t take long to understand that they learn the world around them by asking questions…so many questions. We could learn a thing or two from those young learners when it comes to self-advocacy.

Asking questions of your medical provider could be the difference between getting appropriate care and wasting time, money, and an opportunity to improve your health. While healthcare today is all about getting patients in and out as quickly as possible, it is imperative to slow your physician down and ask a few questions.

With that said, there is immense value attached to the time of a medical professional. Stick to these ten pointed questions to keep things on track, concise, and beneficial to your health.


What are the potential risks and benefits of this treatment or medication?

It is an unfortunate truth that a visit to your doctor’s office often feels like getting “A talking to.” The very setup of the rooms lends itself to putting the medical provider in a position of power. 

This often leads to a “whatever you say goes” dynamic between patient and doctor. Changing that paradigm is imperative. Asking this simple question slows down the conversation and eliminates the feeling that you are taking medication just because a prescription was handed to you.

Once this information is provided, a knowledgeable decision can be made. Some risks outweigh the benefits of treatments or medications, and vice versa. This leads perfectly into the next question you can ask your medical provider.


Are there alternative treatments or medications available for my condition? 

If there is a quick “No,” this should be an immediate red flag. Almost every condition has some form of alternative treatment, and if not, some consideration should still be offered to the question.

Additionally, you could inquire if your physician ever researches or reads about alternative treatments to common diseases or conditions. A, “No,” to this question might be an indication that your healthcare provider is missing new, innovative ways to improve your health.


What tests or procedures do you recommend, and what is their purpose? Have you considered better or newer tests?

A firm grasp on why tests are being ordered is fundamental to good healthcare. The rapid pace of medical discovery and the introduction of advanced technologies makes this question vital to self-advocacy.

Dr. Elizabeth Yurth, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Boulder Longevity Institute recounts one of her patients whose MRI showed an abnormal prostate lesion. As is typical, the patient’s physician ordered a biopsy. 

We now know that some evidence shows biopsy can cause seeding of cancer cells and that there is a better, modern alternative – MRI-Ultrasound Fusion guided biopsy. This precise procedure both reduces the risk of seeding and increases the accuracy of the biopsy. 

In the case of this patient, the better test may never have come up if they did not ask their doctor about other options.


What is the expected outcome of the treatment or procedure? How long will it take to begin working?

Keeping expectations in check is essential. Many patients are unrealistic in the speed that a treatment may begin improving their health. Alternatively, if a timeline seems terribly long, it is worth following up to see if there are options that may be more effective.

Having a realistic timeline upfront can improve outlooks by ensuring patients stick with a treatment plan or program versus quickly giving up due to lack of perceived results.


What are the potential side effects of the treatment or medication? What if I do nothing?

If you have ever seen a commercial for any pharmaceutical on television, you know there is often a very long list of potential side effects that could introduce the risk versus reward conversation again. 

Asking your healthcare provider, “What if I do nothing,” could certainly start a positive conversation around the true value of the treatment or medication recommended.

There seems to be a good versus bad of going to the doctor, especially when overtreatment feels so prevalent in our healthcare systems. 


Are there any lifestyle changes I can make to improve my health?

As discussed in the question prior, there is a common desire for physicians to do something. Whether that be medications, treatments, or something else, it is worth asking about simple lifestyle changes versus prescriptions or injections. 

Some physicians even recommend the opposite, baffling many. In many cases, those who present with knee arthritis are told to lay off exercise and rest. This is contraindicated and we know that exercise and strength building improves the symptoms of knee arthritis.

While medications or treatments may be indicated, there is almost always a lifestyle component, as well. Doctors should not simply be treating symptoms but the entirety of the patient’s wellbeing.


How can I monitor my progress

The next big leap in healthcare will be developing better ways to track improvements or progress to ensure medications, treatments, or therapies are accomplishing goals in a timely fashion.

Many patients prescribed statins are told to follow up in six months for a cholesterol recheck as the only measure of progress. How do we know that this drug is lowering your risk of cardiac events by simply checking cholesterol every six months?

Total cholesterol is not a good tool for the prediction of cardiovascular risk. Yes, oxidized LDLs are troublesome but LDL numbers alone should not be the basis for taking the all-to-common simplistic approach toward cardiac care. 

We would be better served looking at triglyceride to HDL ratio for inflammatory indicators or ensuring cholesterol is an actual problem by examining the B:A ratio of apolipoproteins. 

All that to say, there are often objective measurements cast aside for, “The way it has always been done,” when it comes to tracking progress. Asking your physician for different ways can both trigger a search for other options or can lead you to an understanding that your doctor may not be caught up on modern medicine.


Can we review some articles about this condition?

This question works both ways – an opportunity for you and your doctor to present research on a particular treatment, disease, or medication. An unwillingness by your physician to share how they come to certain conclusions is a definite cause for concern.

It is unreasonable to expect an hour-long seminar on all the research published about a topic but your healthcare professional should be willing to find time (emails, electronic medical record messaging, a separate appointment) to discuss research from varying perspectives.


Are there any clinical trials or research studies that I may be eligible for? What are they doing in other countries that might be useful?

When it comes to the more rare, serious, or progressed diseases, it is imperative to start to seek more progressive options. Looking outside the box could be the key to successful treatment. 

Other countries are often more progressive with techniques and treatments, leading the way to potentially more promising outcomes or novel treatment ideas. 

Clinical trials and research studies are often in a phase of discovering the efficacy of certain treatments on humans and joining them could both help find an unexpected cure and allow you to make good of a bad situation by helping with research that could benefit others.


What can I do to prevent future health problems? How do I find them before they happen?

Prevention is a vital tool in the quest for longer healthspans. We know there are markers that indicate whether we are aging well or poorly like albumin, c-reactive protein, and mean cell volume. 

There are obvious lifestyle behaviors that can help prevent problems and a good physician who is focused on your health should be encouraging those, as well.

Lab trends are a powerful tool and understanding your blood work results is a key to advocating for your own health. 


Taking Your Healthcare Into Your Own Hands

The doctor-patient relationship is often one that puts the physician in some sort of power role. In reality, a healthy relationship with your healthcare provider would look a lot more like a collaboration than subordination. 

Asking appropriate questions, like those listed above, is a major step toward resetting the paradigm. Your health is the most important topic in the room when meeting with your doctor – self-advocacy is a vital tool for increasing your life- and healthspan. 

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Published April 17, 2023

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