From hospital nursery cribs to home hospice bedsides, nurses are everywhere, caring for people across the lifespan every second of every day.
With more than 4 million professionally active ones and over a million soon to be retired, nurses are the hands, feet, head, and heart of the healthcare system—and they know their stuff. Here, four experienced nurses share their tips for enjoying the healthiest life possible at any age.
#1: Keep detailed health records—and keep them with you. First and foremost, knowledge is power, says Sarah Parmer, BSN, RN. “Keep a written list in your wallet, or a note in your cell phone, that includes your allergies, a list of your medical problems, and a list of the medications you take regularly. Keep this list updated because you never know when you'll need it," advises Parmer, an acute care nurse with a decade of experience in a local community hospital. “When patients come into the hospital setting, this information is so helpful to every member of the health care team."
Christine Gibbs agrees, and encourages individuals to keep their records saved electronically and on a flash drive or a smartphone for easy access and portability. Include your surgical history and make sure your medication list includes the name, dose, and how many times a day it's taken, says Gibbs, an RN, nursing leader, and author of the healthcare blog, RN2You.com.
#2: Become an expert in your own healthcare. You are primarily responsible for your best health. Though she left patient care in 2008, Shelley Webb has been an RN since 1975, and over the decade, she's witnessed many changes in nursing and healthcare. "We used to be able to have time to sit and chat with our patients. [Now] it's a constant rush of getting patients admitted and then getting them discharged," she explains.
That's why being informed is important, Parmer says, and don't be afraid to stand up to your doctor. "Many patients believe they can't challenge a physician's orders or ask questions about their care, but the more you ask, the more you know, and the more control you'll have over the outcome," says Parmer. "Ask questions about your treatment plan including tests, medications and consultations."
And when it comes to paying the bills for such tests, medications, and consultations, being familiar with your insurance is critical, says Amy Porter, an RN BSN since 2008. "Most health care companies offer no-cost case management services—especially if you have a disease or qualifying diagnosis," says Porter. That means easy access to a knowledgeable nurse who can answer questions—and not just during the appointment time—about your healthcare, diagnosis, treatment, and more.
Speak up in the doctor's office too: before she calls in a prescription, ask your doctor whether it's covered under your insurance, Porter recommends. It's easy for them to check your coverage in charts or in their computer system, she says, and it will save you from leaving the pharmacy later with an unexpectedly high bill.
#3: Appoint an advocate. Whether it's a basic check-up or a surgical procedure requiring an overnight stay, Parmer recommends bringing a friend or family member along. "When we are in the 'sick' seat it's easy to glaze over and be overwhelmed by the amounts of information being thrown at us," Parmer says. "If someone we trust can be a second set of eyes and ears, they can be an invaluable member of our health care team."
To be an effective advocate, Gibbs advises doing research on your doctors and local hospitals. "Make sure that you partner with those who maintain high ratings for quality care," she says. Check out The Leapfrog Group, Healthgrades, and the Centers for Medicare Services as a guide, per Gibbs.
#4: Do your part to stay healthy. Prevention is in your hands. Good nutrition is up to you. We might not get to choose our doctors and nurses, but every day, we can choose better health. "Focus on diet and exercise, as these two interventions will have a profound effect on your health," says Gibbs. Scrutinize everything you put into your body: do not eat processed foods, limit your sugars, choose a primarily plant-based diet, and drink plenty of filtered water, Webb adds. Healthy eating can be challenging for many caregivers and older adults who have transitioned from cooking for a large family to meals for two or one. Meal planning and prep can help, says Porter.
Also, vaccines are not just for kids. Porter, who now has permanent damage to her cornea after a recent bout of shingles, recommends getting flu shots and any other available vaccinations well into adulthood.
#5: Practice good communication. Let's face it: today's healthcare system is complex. But even the very best healthcare providers are not mind readers, nor are they perfect. Says Gibbs, "The important thing to remember is that while doctors and nurses are specially trained to manage your care, they are not superhuman. Unintentionally, mistakes can happen and communication can be misunderstood."
Being proactive about your wellness and developing a good relationship with your doctor makes a difference, Gibbs adds. "Be clear and honest about your lifestyle and any health concerns you may have."
Today's tech makes it easier to stay in touch with your doctor—some even prefer texting! Read our article on the benefits of digital healthcare communication.