How to be an Empowered Health Consumer

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

Empowered health consumers know how to take charge of their health and are proactive in their care.

Whether they’re surfing the web for health information, visiting their doctor or health care professional, or a patient in the hospital; empowered health consumers know how to question and communicate.

This blog is a continuation of the “He Said, She Said” post where I promised to give you tips about how to be an empowered health consumer.

Sabriya Rice, CNN Medical Producer had a similar idea.

Here are my 3 tips to help you become an empowered health consumer:

1.  Ask tough questions when it comes to the web and on-air health reports

Don’t believe everything you read or hear without questioning it.  Listen to a health report with ears wide open and don’t be afraid to question it.  When searching for health information on the web, check out sites such as,,, and, but don’t stop there.  There are some other great sites that are not so well known, and offer exceptional information.

“Always read an article with a critical eye. Does what the author say make sense?  Check the facts and get the facts from more than one source”, says Kevin Soden, MD, medical journalist and author.

If news shows aren’t asking the tough questions; go ahead and ask your own questions.  Ask questions when you’re searching for health information on the web or listening to a health report.

When health consumers surf the web for health information, Matthew Holt, founder of thehealthcareblog says, health consumers should, “Check multiple sources. Ask questions in consumer forums and look for multiple answers.”

Gary Schwitzer, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication and is the Publisher of HealthNewsReview’s mission is to review health news coverage every day to make sure news stories are accurate.

There is plethora of health information circulating the web, and network news broadcast serious health information in only a couple of minutes or less.  Since some news health segments may only be a few minutes long, viewers may not be getting all the information they need.

Here’s an example where critical information is missing.

In a recent blog by Gary Schwitzer, “CBS Early Show should read us the health news right out of the paper”, Schwitzer questions the validity of this health report.

“Did it come from a study? Or straight out of the Wall Street Journal? Last week the CBS early show brought on another physician-correspondent to talk about the benefits of coffee drinking. Anchor Harry Smith referred to “this new study.” What new study? None was referenced.

What the segment was apparently based on was a Wall Street Journal story that same day that had ALL of the same information. No attribution was given.” [source: Healthnewsreview Blog]

Take a look.  What do you think when you hear a report that refers to a “new study?”  Perhaps at the end of this segment “New Research on Java’s Health Perks” Harry Smith or Dr. Alana Levine  (Primary Care Physician) perhaps could have said, “For more detailed information on this topic, visit our website…”  Unfortunately, there isn’t any detailed information on CBS’s website.  Here’s what you’ll find, “Coffee: New Health Benefits.”

“Primary care physician Dr. Alanna Levine spoke to Harry Smith about new research on the health perks of drinking coffee including lowering the risk of heart disease and depression.”

To be an empowered health consumer you need to question what you read and hear.  It’s important to know the source.  What study and who funded the study?

Watch now

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2.  Ask a lot of questions, don’t sit quietly in the doctor’s office or hospital

Before your appointment write down any questions you may have.  Ask questions about your diagnosis, medications, tests, and follow-ups.  Be in charge and know what’s going on.  Ask for a copy of your test results. And write down your questions.

Here are some questions that you may want to ask your doctor:

  • What are the causes of my symptoms?
  • Will the symptoms go away?  How long will they last?
  • What tests are needed to determine this condition?
  • How is this condition diagnosed?  What are the criteria for diagnosis?
  • What is the treatment?
  • Are there alternative therapies?  Over-the-counter medications? Prescriptions?  What are they?  Will my present medications interfere with any of these new medications?
  • Should my diet change?  Are there certain foods that I should be eating?
  • What lifestyle changes should be made?

3.  Be Prepared – Carry your personal medical history & medication form with you and give your child’s care-giver a consent-to-treat form

Medical History & Medication Form

Don’t leave home without your list of medications and current medical history & medication form.

Know your medications and keep a personal medical history form with you

Understanding your medications and keeping track of them is critical.  It’s a great idea to have these listed on your personal medical history form that you carry with you at all times.  Just in case you end up in the ER or are directly admitted to the hospital, you will be asked multiple times by multiple staff for a list of your medications, past hospitalizations, if you have any allergies and emergency contact numbers.

Where can you find a medical history form?

There are some sites where you can create a small information card; however some people are on many medications that the small size isn’t sufficient.  For a 6×4 size that you can simply carry in a photo style wallet, I’ve created one for you.  You can download it for free by clicking this link.  Simply print, complete and carry.  Moms, this form will fit nicely into the popular 6×4 photo wallets.  Keep a list for you, your kids and spouse or significant other, parents and grandparents. It’s great for college students as well.  Men, simply fold to carry in your small wallet.

(As an expert medical contributor to Real Simple Magazine, “In an Emergency,” this was my number one tip).

Consent to Treat Form

Give your child’s care-giver a consent to treat form

It can be found at

In case of an emergency, having a notarized consent-to-treat form signed by the child’s caregiver will prevent treatment from being delayed.  Of course any life-threatening illnesses or injuries are always top priority, but for a non-critical case having the proper forms will help expedite the process. Find the consent-to-treat form at, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) website.

Question what you read and hear, communicate with your health care professionals and be prepared in case of an emergency or for your next doctor’s visit.  By following these simple tips you can be an empowered health consumer.

We would love to hear from you.  Do you think you are an empowered health consumer?  What are your tips?

Thanks for your time.


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