How to Take Charge of Your Health Care as an Adult

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The first time you have to make a doctor’s appointment for yourself can make you wish for the days—perhaps not long ago—when Mom or Dad did all this for you. And if you’re the parent in this scenario, it might be hard to step back. Here’s a guide to help young adults take charge of their health care.

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A Note for Parents: Ease Into the Responsibility

If you’re already on your own, skip this section. Okay parents, it’s just us here. Before your kid grows up and moves out, you can and should encourage some independence at the doctor’s. You should always make sure to give your child some time alone with their provider so they can discuss things that might be embarrassing—but also so they learn to have those conversations on their own rather than expecting Mom or Dad to handle everything.

So as you’re planning the visit, have your teen think of questions they’d like to ask. Let them fill out their own paperwork when they get to the office. And in conversations with the provider, let your kid speak first. You can stand by as backup.

Obviously, this is all for older teens. You can ease your kid into these responsibilities over the years: filling out forms together when they’re younger, for example, but handing older kids the clipboard and not peeking unless they ask for help.

Do Your Homework Before a Visit

Before you make your first appointment, you’ll want to know what insurance you have. That’s not just so you can hand over the card when the receptionist asks: your insurance may only cover part of the cost of a visit, and it may only cover you at certain (“in-network”) providers. So you’ll need to plan for that.

So find out what kind of insurance you have, and make sure you have a copy of your insurance card. Learn how to log in to your insurance company’s website. That will let you:

  • Search for hospitals, doctors, and other providers that are covered under your insurance
  • Look up what services and drugs are covered
  • Find out how much you pay out of pocket: your copay for each visit or prescription, and the deductible you have to meet (if any) before insurance kicks in.

Fortunately, most routine preventive care is free, without touching your deductible, under the Affordable Care Act (which, yes, is still in effect for the foreseeable future.) Your checkups, birth control prescriptions, and recommended tests and screenings all fall into this category. As always, check with your insurance company for the specifics.

How to Find a Doctor

The doctor finder on your insurance company’s website is a fine starting point, and if you’re in a hurry, you can just pick somebody convenient from that list.

But ideally you’ll find a doctor you love and trust. Start by asking around. Your friends and co-workers will have their own doctors, and hopefully at least one of them likes their doctor and can tell you why.

Rating sites like ZocDoc and Healthgrades can give more insight into what a provider does and what patients think of them. Yelp also has doctor reviews.

If you already have some kind of health professional you go to, ask if they can recommend someone. For example, I found my kids’ pediatrician through a recommendation from my midwife.

How to Make an Appointment

Even in 2017, you still usually have to call on the phone if you want to make an appointment. (Large hospital systems often have handy online tools, though, so it’s worth checking whether you can schedule an appointment without talking to a human if that’s your preference.)

When you call, start the conversation with a simple “I’d like to make an appointment.” Or if you want to be clear that you’re totally new to this, you can say “Are you accepting new patients?”

After that, be ready with a one-sentence description of why you want to see the doctor. Don’t name the rare diseases you were reading about on Google, and don’t go on at length with a weeks-long timeline of symptoms. Just state the most significant part of your problem in plain language: “I’ve had a cough for the past week and it feels like it’s getting worse.” Or “My periods have been really heavy and painful and I’m worried something is wrong.” Or “I’m due for a checkup.”

After that, you’ll have to answer questions (have that insurance card handy) and pick a time to schedule the appointment. Plan on arriving early, even if you suspect you’ll have to wait; at many offices, if you’re late, you’ll have to reschedule for another time.

Before you head into the office, take a minute to gather some information. Do you know your family health history? Your personal history of surgeries and conditions you’ve been diagnosed with? The names of any medications you’re taking (including over-the-counter stuff and “natural” supplements)? If not, take a minute to sort that out. Call your mom if that’s what you need to do for the history questions. Call your previous doctor’s office if there are records they should send to your new doc. And then write everything down on paper or in your phone, so you won’t forget.

At the Visit, Ask Questions

Your job as a patient isn’t to submit to an interrogation and then just sit there and absorb the doctor’s wisdom. Plan out beforehand what information you want your provider to know, and what questions you’ll need answered.

For example, it’s fair to explain that you’re worried that your condition might be something serious, because you have a family history of that serious thing. (You’ll fill out a history form, but there’s no guarantee your provider will study it in detail before seeing you.) And maybe your questions include things like “Should I stay home from the trip I planned next week?” or “I live with small children, does my infection pose a risk to them?” Your doc won’t necessarily guess that you have these questions, so be sure to speak up.

Give honest answers to any questions they ask, even if it means admitting that you smoke pot or sometimes have unprotected sex or are really bad about remembering to take your medication. This all matters to your health, and your conversation is private.

It’s fine to take notes, although you will usually get some paperwork with notes and reminders before you leave. In the conversation you have with your provider, make sure you fully understand what they’re saying and what it means for your health. All of the questions below are fair game, and your doctor will not think you’re weird or difficult for asking:

  • What are the risks and benefits of this treatment/medication you’re recommending?
  • What will we do differently if we get a positive versus a negative result from this test?
  • (If they say you need more tests before getting a diagnosis) What do you think this could be, and what are we trying to rule out?

If they use a word you don’t recognize, ask for clarification. And at the end of the conversation, repeat back what you understand the situation and your next steps to be. Better to clear up miscommunications now, so you’re not wondering at 8 p.m. whether you were supposed to start taking the medication today or tomorrow.

Dealing with the medical system can be a bewildering experience, but it helps to be prepared and to never be afraid of asking questions. You’ll get used to it over time, but the first step is to actually make that call (or online appointment request) that you’ve been putting off—so don’t be afraid to get started.

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How to Take Charge of Your Health Care as an Adult

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