Part one – Taking Charge of Your Health
Part two – Things You Can Do to Take Charge of Your Health
Take control of your health at a basic level
* When you attend a surgery or clinic with your symptoms the first thing they generally do is some very simple and basic health checks. Did you know you can do these yourself at home? Professional quality basic diagnostic tools such as an aural thermometer, finger tip pulse meter, and blood pressure tester are available from medical supplies websites at surprisingly affordable prices.
* The second level of tests is likely to be a urine sample. This is initially tested with a ‘dipstick’ in a similar way to a pregnancy test and matched against a colour coded chart. If this indicates areas of concern the sample is sent to a lab for further testing. Again, this dipstick test can be done at home. All the necessary bits and bobs can be bought from the medical supplies websites.
* Undiagnosed diabetes can be life-threatening but, with the right equipment, you can do a simple test for this at home. A digital meter that measures both glucose and ketone levels, lancet pen, and separate blood test strips are all easily obtained from retail pharmacies and will alert you to the need for any action without waiting for a GP appointment.
Becoming familiar with the state of your own general health and what readings are normal for you, as well as the average, is a good starting point for taking charge of your own health. Doing the basic medical tests when you have concerns about symptoms that have appeared will help you feel more in control when you’re ill. It’ll also help you make a more informed decision about whether or not you need a GP’s appointment.
Understand the system
You probably know that your health care provision is based around your GP practice. They’re the ones that hold your records and are the necessary starting point for referrals and secondary care testing. But did you know it can take anything up to a month for some GP practices to turn around your registration? Which could leave you caught between two stools if medical services are needed unexpectedly.
* It’s easy to assume that you have to register with the medical practice closest to where you live but all GPs cover a catchment area which could well have other doctors within it. Ask about turnaround times before registering so you know where you are. Find out what alternative provision is offered in the meantime.
* Larger towns and cities will have Walk-in Centres which anyone can attend, open from early morning until late at night. Find out where your nearest one is and make a note of how to get there. If there’s more than one in the vicinity, find out which one is the least crowded and when.
* Out of hours GPs cover evenings, nights and weekends. Find out where the out-of-hours GP is in your area and keep details to hand.
* In an urgent situation that isn’t immediately life threatening, calling 111 will enable you to judge the time frame for seeing a GP based on being led through a questionnaire on your symptoms. They will refer you to the out of hours GP if necessary.
* You can bookmark this section on the NHS website for more detail on these and other points.
Get the most out of your medical practice
There’s some really useful information on the NHS website here on what to expect from GP services that will help you get the most out of your medical practice.
* Work with your medical practice as a complete entity to get the best out of their services. Don’t always assume you need to see a GP – find out what the practice nurses can offer and whether there are any specialist clinics available.
* Find out what days each doctor in your medical practice works, so that if you want to see a particular person you’ll know in advance when they’ll be available. Find out how long the practice allocates for each appointment so you can relax about taking up the doctor’s time or know whether you need to book a longer appointment. Make sure you cancel appointments you can’t attend.
* Know what your doctor’s qualifications mean. After the general Bachelor of Medicine (or Medicine and Surgery) many GPs will have additional diplomas such as Family Planning, Child Health or Dermatology. By understanding what these are you can ask to see someone who may have a specialism in your area of concern.
* A GP appointment is known as a consultation, because you are consulting the doctor for the benefit of their professional opinion in the same way as you would consult your solicitor. The NHS website has a list of useful questions to ask which will help you make the most of your time.
* Effective diagnoses come from effective communication. You can familiarise yourself with basic anatomical knowledge with an illustrated medical encyclopedia or download charts. Be aware of where your internal organs are sited and use the correct names to describe them (‘stomach’ pain is usually intestinal). Find out how doctors describe the types and sites of pain (useful leaflets for this here and here) and try to use their language not your own.
* Make brief notes of your symptoms and refer to them when describing your symptoms to the doctor so your discussion can be as focused as possible.
* Take notes during your consultation. You’ll know what was discussed and what was agreed on and when you’re greeted on your return home with ‘so what did the doctor say?’ you’ll actually be able to tell them! If you feel too ill to take notes, take someone with you to do it for you.
* Be proactive in the discussion. Ask for a time frame for the turnaround of any tests and when to call for results. Ask what happens next and what your options are.
* The General Medical Council (GMC) has published some useful guidance on the doctor/patient relationship.
Understand your medication
* If you want to know more about what you’ve been prescribed and why, the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) website has information on treatment and drugs that will help you to familiarise yourself with the purposes and action of your medication.
* If you’ve lost the printed information leaflet for your medicine you can find PDF copies online at www.medicines.org.uk
* If you have concerns about your medication, and want an immediate answer that will help you assess the situation, you can telephone a pharmacist for advice. (It doesn’t have to be your local one if you want to keep matters private,) This is a really useful service which will give you reassurance or the information you need to help you decide whether to go back to your GP.
Create your own medical records
Getting access to the details of your own medical records can be a contentious issue. You can create your own set of medical records, however, so that, as far as possible, you’ll have the information that they do.
* The NHS website has an outline of the type of information that goes into your medical records, which will give you an idea of what to put in your home version.
* As a basic starting point keep notes on all illnesses you and you family have, with their date and duration, symptoms, medication and outcome.
* Keep notes of all your visits to your GP and what was discussed, diagnosed and prescribed
* Keep the packaging of all medication you are prescribed. If this isn’t possible make a careful note of all the information on the packaging and label. Or photo it.
* Make a note of what medications have been prescribed, for what illness, and any reactions to it. Keep a copy of this information on a separate sheet.
* Additionally, have key medical information likely to be required by A&E personnel, such as age, weight, known allergies or previous reactions to medication, and a note of any current medication being taken, on a typed A4 sheet and keep it to hand.
Know who to contact with concerns
* Healthwatch is the independent consumer rights group for the health care services where you can leave feedback on your experiences to improve the system.
* The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) is a first point of contact if you are unsure as to what to do about the services in your area or just need some general advice on matters surrounding your health.
* The General Medical Council (GMC) sets the medical and ethical standards that doctors of all levels need to follow and oversees medical education and training in the UK. It also manages the medical register and investigates concerns about doctors.
* In general, concerns about the provision of secondary medical care (hospitals etc) are dealt with by the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) for your area. Information on their general role is here but you’ll need to do a search for your specific CCG.
* If you’ve followed a formal complaint process and feel that things still haven’t been resolved then you can contact the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman.
Trying to negotiate the complexities of the health care system when you’re not in the best of health can be daunting and stressful but the results of my research have thrown up a lot of useful information that can help with this. Following the tips and guidelines I’ve discovered will put you in a better position to cope when things go wrong – but the key to this is to start addressing how you interact with health care in your area, now, before you need it and not wait until you need it, as I did. (The NHS website is full of extremely useful information that can be a little difficult to find from the home page but this section is a good starting point.)
We can, and must, re-frame our relationship with the health care system, to stop being passive consumers, and instead work in partnership with the health care professionals in our area in a way that benefits us all. And by doing so we’ll find not only that we’ve made life much easier for ourselves in the long run – but that we’ve enabled ourselves to take charge of our health.