I Turned 18 and Healthcare Changed for Me:
What I Wish I’d Known Then

How Becoming a Legal Adult Comes with Much More than One Would Expect

By Abby Briggs

The End of An Era

Abby Briggs

When I turned 18, I was looking forward to moving away for college, being able to vote, and maybe purchasing a lottery ticket one day or getting a tattoo. What I didn’t know was I was walking into so much more. For all that I gained with becoming a legal adult., I lost some things too, specifically when it came to my healthcare.

I visited my pediatrician for the last time over the summer in 2018. It was bittersweet and scary, realizing I would be moving on to another stage in my life. But as August approached and I started to pack and plan for college, the thought of a new doctor’s office left my mind.

In fact, it stayed out of my mind for over a year until this past winter break when I needed to visit a physician. Since I was at home, I went to an office my mom recommended.

It was an awkward experience. Even with the pages and pages of paperwork I filled out in the large but empty waiting room, the doctor still did not really know my medical history. I had not grown up with them as I had with my pediatrician. The white walls and cold rooms were intimidating. As the doctor tried to explain possibilities for my issue that I had already considered, I almost let myself nod and agree. Thankfully, I had already been an intern on the TakeCHARGE TM     Campaign for a few months at that point and had come prepared with a list of questions. I left the office with a sense of pride for standing my ground and using the tools I had learned as an intern. But most importantly, I left with clarity about my situation.     

TakeCHARGE to the Rescue

The  TakeCHARGE Campaign (5 Steps to Safer Health Care) has laid out five actions individuals can and should take to improve their chances of good healthcare outcomes. The campaign aims to teach and motivate the whole community to do one of these steps each month between April and August 2020, although the expectation is that people will continue to practice what they learned from the campaign long after.

Before joining the campaign, I had no idea that once I turned 18, my mom could no longer make medical decisions for me in an emergency that prevented me from doing that, and that I needed to designate a healthcare proxy to do so. Since I had always had the same pediatrician, I did not have a medical history compiled. I had never prepared a physical list of questions before going to a doctor’s appointment. But as a young person, preparing a list of questions is one of the best things to do for yourself. It is easy for people to not listen to us and discount what we have to say, so preparing a list of questions is a reminder that we have power in that situation. It is our healthcare and we have the ability to take charge of it.

Since joining the campaign, I’ve had conversations with my friends and peers about topics like medical history and advanced directives. For almost everyone I spoke with, the idea of advanced directives was totally new. Why wouldn’t our parents be able to speak on our behalf and make medical decisions? That’s how it had been for all of our lives. On top of classes, studying, jobs and internships, clubs and trying to have a social life, it can seem especially daunting to people my age to start working towards taking charge of their healthcare. When I mentioned that our parents could not make medical decisions for us in case of an emergency, one of my friends was astounded and asked me, “How do I change that?” I explained to her what advanced directives were, specifically a healthcare proxy, and then sent her the link to the TakeCHARGE campaign page for more information.

That’s why the TakeCHARGE Campaign is perfect—everything they could need is easily accessible on the campaign’s website, www.takecharge.care. There’s information about each of the 5 Steps as well as links to more resources and printables to help start compiling a list of medications, medical history, questions, etc. Furthermore, the campaign has many social media components on Instagram, LinkedIn and other social media platforms to make it appealing and digestible for younger generations. I personally created a number of memes for the campaign relating to the different steps, because who doesn’t love a good laugh? Humor helps people remember and healthcare is no exception! I have also created Ask Abby videos for each of the steps, providing personal stories and explaining what people can do to be better-prepared as patients. Everyone on our team has worked and continues to brainstorm the best ways to reach people because when it comes down to it, that’s what this is about—reaching as many people as we can and providing them with what they need to be well-prepared and informed patients.

The 5 Steps

Some people say that three is the magic number, but when it comes to being a well-prepared patient, five is the number you want to remember.

Step 1 is “complete your advanced directives.” As I’ve talked about already, advanced directives can include a living will and a healthcare proxy. These documents are important because they ensure that your wishes will be followed if there is medical situation in which you cannot speak for yourself.

Step 2 is “Keep track of your medical history and medications.” Doctors frequently ask questions about your health, such as past surgeries or when the symptoms of your current ailment started. Just as a resumé helps an employer understand your suitability for a job, a personal medical history helps a clinician understand the whole picture of you as a patient. That’s especially true when you’re seeing a healthcare provider for the first time, or when you see multiple providers. Knowing medications is also very important because if a doctor needs to prescribe a new medication, they need to make sure there are no side effects.

Step 3 is “Prepare a list of questions.” Think ahead of time about the reason for your visit to the doctor or hospital and what you hope to get out of it. The more prepared you are, the better the results you’re likely to get from your care. It is important to have questions prepared ahead of time because this allows both you (the patient) and the clinician to focus on getting a diagnosis. It is also important to think of questions throughout your appointment so that there is as much clarity as possible.

Step 4 is “Ask caregivers to wash their hands.” As we’ve become all too familiar with this during the coronavirus pandemic, washing hands is the most effective way to prevent transmission of germs and infections. Medical staff are often very busy and under pressure. They may forget in all the hustle and bustle, so ask them kindly to wash their hands before touching you.

Step 5 is “Use an advocate, be an advocate for others.” Everyone getting medical treatment should have someone to support them, to help raise questions, take notes, enhance communication with medical staff and make sure they are receiving patient-centered care. Sometimes it can be intimidating to visit a doctor, so your advocate helps to ensure you receive quality care. You can also serve as an advocate for someone else, whether it be a family member, friend, or partner. Offering to be an extra set of ears, take notes, assist in updating the medical records, etc. all help prepare that person and make their healthcare experience easier. Choosing and advocate early can help you decide what you want them to do and what they are willing to do for you.

The Start of a New Era

Turning 18 was both exciting and scary. It came with a lot of changes, some that I was prepared for and others…not so much.

Over the last two years, I have learned a lot. But nothing has been quite as important as finding out how turning 18 changed my healthcare. Healthcare plays a key role in determining health outcomes and although I am young and healthy, it is still up to me to take charge of my experiences in clinics and hospitals. Having a healthcare proxy helps protect my wishes about medical decisions in the future. Building a medical history now helps me at appointments and will establish past health for doctors in the future. Asking caregivers to wash their hands protects me and builds confidence in advocating for myself and my health. Learning to ask questions now will create a lifelong habit that provides clarity for my doctors at appointments. Using an advocate ensures that I receive care that centers around me and my needs.  

Like most things in life, learning about how my healthcare changed was a process. I started out with no knowledge and now, because of the TakeCHARGE Campaign, I feel prepared to be a patient and am equipped to help other people be well-informed patients too. 

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To learn more visit www.TakeCHARGE.care or call (516) 579-4711

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Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education Advocacy

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