Health

How to advocate for yourself at the doctors

Having an open and trusting relationship with your GP will help you ask the right questions at your appointments.

Do you feel like your GP is brushing aside your symptoms and concerns? Find out how to advocate for yourself to get the health care you need and deserve.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Have you ever spent days rehearsing what you were going to say to your doctor only to stumble out of your appointment feeling bewildered because you forgot to ask half the questions you’d prepared?

With only 15 minutes to lay out all your concerns to a busy GP who’s seen it all before, it’s easy to let important questions slip through the cracks or feel too embarrassed to ask them. 

But every Australian has seven fundamental rights under the Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights:

  • Access
  • Safety
  • Respect
  • Partnership
  • Information
  • Privacy
  • Give feedback

These rights are in place to ensure you have access to safe and high-quality health care, you’re treated with dignity and respect, your privacy is protected, and you can speak up for yourself to get the care you’re legally entitled to receive.

Here’s how to ensure you get the most out of your next appointment with your doctor - and what to do if you don’t.

Before your appointment

Preparing for your appointment can increase your confidence, help you get all the information you need and improve your outcomes. 

1. Consider booking a long appointment

A standard GP appointment is 10 to 15 minutes. If you have several concerns or complex needs, you should book a long appointment lasting at least 30 minutes so you don’t feel rushed. 

2. Make a symptom list

Write down all the symptoms you’ve been experiencing in order of most to least bothersome.

Better yet, keep a symptom diary for a week. Note each symptom, when it occurred and how intense it was. These details will help your GP get a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing. 

3. Prepare your questions

Make a list of any questions you have about the causes of your symptoms, treatment options, side effects and costs. It may help to make a note in your phone that you can add to every time a new question pops into your mind.

Worried you’ll forget something important? Healthdirect’s Question Builder helps you create a customised list of questions you can print out and bring with you to your appointment.

4. Know your history

Prepare a summary of your family and personal medical history that includes any major illnesses or conditions you or your immediate family members have had. If you have any recent test results, bring them with you.

5. Make a list of medications

Write down any medications you currently take and the dosage. You should also let your doctor know about any vitamins or herbal supplements you take.

6. Bring a notepad or support person

To avoid forgetting any important information your doctor tells you, bring a notepad, phone, friend or family member to your appointment.

During your appointment

When you attend your appointment, remember that you have the right to be listened to, taken seriously and given clear explanations of your options. 

1. Consider recording the session

Recording the appointment on your phone can allow you to have a record of everything that was said, but make sure you seek permission from your GP first. In some states, it’s illegal to record a conversation without consent. 

If you prefer not to record it or your GP declines, take notes or ask your support person to write everything down while you listen.

2. Be honest

Describe your symptoms and habits honestly and accurately. While you might be tempted to downplay how much alcohol you drink or how much sugar you eat, telling your GP half-truths could lead to an incorrect diagnosis or treatment plan and affect your outcomes. 

3. Seek clarification

If your GP uses medical jargon you don’t understand or some information isn’t clear, ask them to clarify. If you have a support person with you, they may be able to contribute additional questions.

4. Ask these 5 questions

Choosing Wisely Australia recommends asking your doctor these 5 questions before getting any test, procedure or treatment:

  • Do I really need this test, treatment or procedure?
  • What are the risks?
  • Are there simpler, safer options?
  • What happens if I don’t do anything?
  • What are the costs?

You may want to ask for a detailed quote including any Medicare Benefits Schedule item numbers so you can find out what will be covered by Medicare and/or your private health insurance.

These questions will help you gather all the information you need to make an informed decision and avoid any unnecessary tests or treatments.

5. Stand up for yourself

Doctors can sometimes misunderstand your concerns, get sidetracked or not seem to take you seriously. If you don’t feel heard, don’t be afraid to say so. You could say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like you heard me. My main concern is…”

6. Ask for more information

If you want to know more about your condition or treatment plan, ask your doctor to print out information for you or point you to reliable online resources.

After your appointment

Take the time to digest the information your doctor gave you before you decide on next steps. 

1. Do some research

You may want to find out more about your options. When researching health information online, stick to government websites that have .gov in their URL. Good resources include Healthdirect, Better Health Channel and your state health service.

2. Make a follow-up appointment

You might have more questions for your GP or need to make decisions based on the results of tests you’ve taken. Make as many follow-up appointments as you need until you feel adequately informed.

3. Seek a second opinion

If you didn’t feel heard, you’re not convinced that the proposed treatment plan is right for you or you didn’t like the doctor’s bedside manner, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. It’s important to feel comfortable and safe with your health care provider.

4. File a complaint

If you felt your health care rights weren’t respected or you didn’t receive adequate care, you can make a complaint. You should start by addressing the issue with your doctor’s practice and clearly state what you would like them to do to rectify the situation.

But if the situation isn’t resolved to your satisfaction or you believe the doctor could be putting other patients at risk, you can file a formal complaint. You’ll find a complete list of services where you can file a health complaint in each state and territory on the Healthdirect website.

Getting the health care you deserve

If you don’t feel capable of advocating for yourself, a family member can do it for you.

People with disability are also entitled to advocacy under the National Disability Advocacy Program and aged care advocates are available through the National Aged Care Advocacy Program.

Knowing your rights can empower you or a loved one to fight for your rights and get the health care you’re entitled to under Australian law. 

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