THE BLOG

Speak Up and Be Counted!

03/21/2013 04:45 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2013

As a family caregiver, you do all you can to make certain your loved one receives the best care possible. To this point, no role is more important than that of someone's personal "health advocate."

I've been asked many times: What does being a health advocate really mean? By definition, an "advocate" is a person who speaks in support of a person. The key word is "speaks." But, there's more to it.

As a health advocate, you act as a liaison with the doctors, hospital staff and various health care personnel in order to facilitate the flow of crucial, and potentially lifesaving, information. It's a responsibility that can make a dramatic difference in the quality of treatment.

Unfortunately, it's also a responsibility that can make the best family caregiver quite anxious.

But it really shouldn't.

No one knows what is going on in your loved one's day-to-day life better than you. What you have to say really counts, and you need to know that you have a very receptive audience with doctors.

Once a more closed-door environment, the medical community has evolved into a more active "give and take" relationship between physicians, patients and their family caregivers.

Experience shows that acting as an informed, engaged caregiver will result in a more well-balanced exchange --and ultimately it will lead to a higher standard of care for that special person in your care.

In fact, a national study that we did at Caring Today told us that doctors not only value what family caregivers have to say -- they count on it. After all, you're in the trenches on a day-to-day basis, so you may pick up on changes the doctors wouldn't. And the good news is that you don't have to be a doctor to help the doctor. But you do have to do your homework.

With the seemingly-unending parade of tests, medications, treatments, trying to understand your loved one's condition can be confusing. So it's a must to listen carefully, ask questions, and be ready to raise any relevant concerns.

So to prepare for these discussions, a family caregiver should:

• Familiarize themselves fully with your loved one's current medical condition.
• Understand the state of your loved one's physical and emotional needs.
• Become well-versed regarding all daily medications and any possible side effects.
• Ensure that the doctor's recommendations are being followed.

Preparation is a wonderful antidote to reduce anxiety. It's a confidence booster. And, as a health advocate, you have to have confidence to voice your questions, observations and concerns.

If you're confused as to why a certain test is being ordered or a medication is being prescribed, inquire. If you're puzzled by the conclusions a doctor reaches, question them. And, if you're presented with conflicting recommendations, speak up.

While there's a fine line between being involved and being overbearing, it's necessary for you, as a family caregiver, to foster open lines of communication -- and this includes questioning decisions concerning your loved one's health.

Fortunately, there is a quick, easy guide to help any caregiver to stay on track. Follow these Three Rs of Advocacy:

Remember the facts and information that are central to your loved one's health.

Remind health care providers when you hear something that conflicts with your daily observations.

Represent your loved one by being a knowledgeable custodian of his or her health and well-being.

They say that a picture is worth 1,000 words. Perhaps, but unless you have some incredible pictures to show your loved one's doctor, you may have to stick to words. And, the doctor can't wait to hear what you have to say. So, be prepared and please speak up!

Help yourself. Help others.

For more by Victor Imbimbo, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.

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