Monday, December 7, 2009

Advocacy When Sick, Part II: Quality Control

In my first posting of this series, I discussed the loss of control patients face when they have a medical crisis. 

Well, patients take note: 

You do have control by advocating for yourself during your medical care. 

Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are not perfect. Being human like everyone else, they can and do make mistakes.

It is your job to help navigate through the complicated maze known as the medical system. And an important way to do this is by watching your staff cross their t's and dot their i's. In other words: keep your eyes on your medical care.

I'm not suggesting looking over everyone's shoulder and venturing into paranoia. What I am suggesting, though, is to be vigilent by taking an active role in your treatments. This is accomplished by asking questions, politely telling staff when you think there's an error, and just being aware of information and actions regarding your treatment.

I have many examples illustrating the previous paragraph, but I'll just give you a few examples.

My friend was going through chemotherapy and realized at the beginning of one treatment session that the bag of fluids beginning to drip into her body had another patient's name on it. Horrified, my friend alerted the nursing staff and insisted that this treatment be halted immediately.
My chemotherapy nurse, on the other hand, didn't make any mistakes with me. But she admitted that because she was dyslexic, she had to double- and triple-check the doctors' orders for all patients. We joked about this at times, but deep down inside, I knew to kindly -- but assertively -- ensure I was getting the right chemo treatment.

My oncologist already told me each of the three chemicals to be administered to me. So I would ask Anne, my chemo nurse, "So what's the name of this chemical?" and "And the Cytoxin follows?" Knowing which chemical was going into me and when each was being administered was super-empowering. 

And even though Anne remembered certain shots I was supposed to get, I felt obligated to myself to remind her or to talk about it during the course of my sitting in the chemo chair.

Another example is when I had a lovely overnight sleepover in the hospital. I was unlucky enough to be in a room near the nurses' station, where they would babble loudly. Feeling that was not conducive to my healing, I told them to keep it down, as I was trying to recover from surgery. 

They kept it down. 

They hated me. 

But they used their inside voices.

Mission accomplished.

So my advice to patients is the following:
  • Don't be afraid to remind doctors of tests you need and to confirm your treatment plan.
  • Don't be afraid to speak up if you have any doubt you are about to receive the wrong treatment/tests or are doubtful of the ones you are receiving.
  • You can control your medical environment to some extent.
  • Play an active role in ensuring you get the best possible medical treatment.
  • Do all of this courteously. Nobody likes or listens to a whiner.
Becoming a patient with a medical condition isn't an ideal situation for anyone. However, if you are active instead of passive, you will feel empowered. And that's what counts.

Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She writes about a potpourri of topics, including motherhood and her Chinese adoption experience at, and her cat Hemi blogs at Beth teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris University in the Chicago area. She has a guest posting on The World's Strongest Librarian at

She can be contacted at and


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