You are in charge of your own body, so you deserve a leadership role in your healthcare decisions.

Healthcare is a team effort. The team could be made up of your primary care professional, specialists, pharmacists, mental health professionals, and, of course, you. They bring their medical expertise. But you are the expert on your body and life experiences.

People who take the lead tend to have better treatment outcomes and more positive feelings about their care, according to a 2022 study. So go ahead and ask questions, follow up, and take a leadership role in your care decisions.

As a Veteran, you have unique healthcare needs, so you should feel empowered to speak up if you feel like your healthcare team isn’t hearing you or addressing your concerns. But it’s not always easy to let your voice be heard in a healthcare setting, especially if you have unique needs.

Below, we cover some ways to advocate for yourself in a healthcare setting.

In a healthcare setting, you have many rights as a patient, including:

  • the right to be treated with dignity, compassion, and respect
  • the right to express any personal, religious, or cultural beliefs that should influence your care
  • the right to be informed about the risks and benefits of treatment
  • the right for you or someone you designate to decide if or when to end treatment

You can also take an active role in your own care by understanding your VA healthcare benefits.

In addition to learning about care and benefits you are eligible to access at the VA, get familiar with assistance you may be eligible for from an employer’s insurance plan, or government programs like Medicare or Medicaid, as they can also help with pharmacy costs, transportation, meals, and more.

Healthcare visits can go by in a flash. To ensure you get what you need from appointments, it helps to prepare to advocate for yourself. Here’s how:

And remember, communication is a two-way street. If anything a healthcare professional says is unclear, ask them for clarification.

Know the importance of self-care

Self-care involves taking care of your well-being by doing things that make you feel good, like eating healthy foods, exercising, managing your stress, and getting quality sleep.

Evidence suggests that taking the time for self-care can improve your overall health. One study found that Veterans who exercised and practiced mindfulness were more tuned into their bodies and had better states of mind than Veterans who were on the waiting list for self-care programs.

If you need help in any of these areas, talk with your primary care professional. Additionally, the VA offers self-care programs like nutrition counseling, tobacco cessation support, and mental health care to help Veterans feel their best.

Support your mental health

When advocating for your care, don’t let mental health fall by the wayside.

Advocating for your physical health is important, but so is your mental health, especially considering Veterans are more likely than the general population to experience mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The VA offers in-person and online mental health services, as well as a personal whole health inventory for self-assessment, which helps you evaluate your own thought patterns, degree of fulfillment, connection with community, and other parts of health not as often addressed at the doctor.

Talk with your primary care professional about your mental health concerns. Make sure they know it’s urgent that you talk with someone, especially if you are:

  • unintentionally losing weight
  • sleeping poorly
  • having thoughts of suicide
  • feeling like you’re a burden to your family
  • numbing your emotional pain with substances like alcohol or drugs

You can get help 24 hours a day from the Veterans Crisis line. To access it:

  • Call 988.
  • Text 838255.
  • Start an online chat.
  • Call TTY, if you have hearing loss: 800-799-4889.

You can also call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

For assistance accessing the care you need, check out these materials and programs:

  • VA Patient Advocates
  • Mental health care through the VA
  • Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration
  • Assistance for family caregivers
  • A guide for talking with your doctor

Even when you become skilled at advocating for your own health, there may still be times when it is helpful to have someone else–such as a family member, friend, or a professional patient–advocate to help you navigate the healthcare and benefits systems of the VA, TRICARE, employer insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Advocates can help you get what you need by asking questions, writing down information, and speaking up for you.

Sometimes, getting the right medical treatment as a Veteran requires advocating for yourself. Self-advocacy involves telling others what you need, when you need it, and how you want it. It’s a skill we can improve on with practice and the right resources.

Also, remember that advocating for yourself can also include enlisting the help of a family member, friend or professional, whenever necessary.