09/12/18

written by Brianna Flaherty

You Do You

How I Learned To Be My Own Health Advocate

I’ve worked in the health and wellness industry for several years, across multiple companies and roles. Because of this, I like to *think* I know the difference between viable medical treatments and totally fake, money-generating trends (I’m looking at you, waist trainers and coconut oil). So, the other night when I decided to watch The Bleeding Edge (a Netflix documentary about the medical device industry that one writer recently—and, in my opinion, correctly—called 2018’s best horror film) I thought I knew the plot already. I was sure it would be another exercise in putting faces to the countless stories I’ve heard about people navigating a way-too-exclusive healthcare system. It would be draining, but pretty familiar. Little did I know I was signing up for an exposé of a corrupt $400 billion industry that puts profits from untested medical devices before patients’ health and wellbeing.

I was floored *and a little queasy* for all 99 minutes.

As story after story unfolded of people experiencing life-derailing side effects from devices that were rapidly approved by the FDA (in a process that amounts to sanctioned medical malpractice), my ignorance revealed itself. Medically speaking, I’m pretty sheltered. I’ve never had a major surgery, never (yet) been faced with a hip replacement, or any procedure that requires putting a medical device permanently in my body. I had a brief, two-month stint with birth control pills and hated how I felt so much that I still, to this day, bow down to friends who have been on BC for decades. I was shocked when a doctor recently dismissed my strep throat—undetectable on rapid tests, and flourishing for eight days—as my own over-exaggeration of symptoms and pain. It’s almost too easy to believe that we’ve evolved past a time when women’s bodies were undervalued by the medical industry. The truth is that, statistically, our pain is still regularly dismissed in medical spaces. This was just my first brush with that reality, and The Bleeding Edge opened my eyes to how serious that gendered dismissal of pain can be.

There are a million messages you could draw from the information The Bleeding Edge presents, but it was extremely clear to me that the overwhelming number of women’s stories in the documentary is not a coincidence. It’s not a coincidence or a secret that women (and minority groups in general) are the most vulnerable population when it comes to accessing medical care. It’s definitely not a coincidence that I wasn’t empowered with any knowledge about pelvic health until I started writing for this blog, or that I and so many of my friends lack some of the most basic literacy about our bodies.

In fact, it makes total sense to me that so many surgeries-gone-wrong in The Bleeding Edge are centered around the pelvic floor: sling surgeries, hysterectomies, and faulty birth control implants. On average, it takes women seven long years to talk about pelvic health with a doctor, yet a significant 29% of us will have multiple surgeries for pelvic floor disorders over our lifetime. When it comes to our pelvic health, women are left in the dark too often, making decisions based on guidance from doctors who haven’t earned our trust. How many pelvic floor surgeries provide a genuine solution? Many, to be sure. But how many create new and serious limitations for women who hoped for a greater sense of freedom? And how often do we hear those stories of failure when the medical industry’s integrity hinges on a narrative of success?

In lieu of creating a new FDA or opening my own med school, I decided to make a checklist of sorts for navigating healthcare with my (our) best interests in mind.

Advocating For Your Health

Become an expert in your own body. The beauty of the internet is how quickly you can research. If you’ve been diagnosed with a condition and offered a solution that feels wrong for you, investigate what else is out there. Pose questions to your doctor, and don’t be afraid of questioning why they’re recommending one avenue of treatment over another.

Always feel ready, if not compelled, to get a second opinion. When it comes to major medical decisions, one person’s expertise isn’t always enough. It takes a little extra time and labor, but a second opinion will either reassure or redirect your decisions about your health.

Talk to people in your life. Whether they’ve experienced what you’re going through or not, it’s good to share your experiences with family and friends. When you isolate yourself, you often lose the power that comes from other people backing up what you’re feeling, saying, or asking for.

Trust your instincts. If you don’t get good vibes from a doctor, get a new doctor when you can. If you have a procedure and something feels wrong, don’t let anyone dismiss your pain, or tell you everything is okay when you sense that it’s not.

Back your instincts up with facts. The following website allows you to check whether your doctor receives any financial kickbacks by recommending a certain device, procedure, or drug to solve your health issues: https://openpaymentsdata.cms.gov/

The more we talk about our experiences, educate ourselves, and advocate for competent healthcare, the louder the conversation around the value of our bodies in medical spaces is becoming—and the more our healthcare experience is changing, for the better.

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