By Stephen Wilson

Walk-in clinics continue to pop up on corners and inside pharmacies and grocery stores across the country. While convenient for patients on the go, the relationship between patient and provider is one of mechanics: Here’s what’s wrong; please fix it.

It’s not the relationship all patients seek. Some, like Tiffany Gwilliam ’98, seek an advocate and partner: doctors who listen well, think holistically, and fight for what’s best for patients. She knows the value of a strong physician relationship as she navigated her daughter’s juvenile idiopathic arthritis diagnosis, her parents’ cancer journeys, and her two-time cancer battle.

Gwilliam delivered an impassioned talk titled Women with Grit vs. The Third Leading Cause of Death at Wilmington’s TEDx conference about preventing medical errors,the third leading cause of death, through physician relationships and self-advocacy.

How can young adults leaving college and seasoned alumni leverage her life lessons? Let’s find out.

What would your advice be to recent graduates?

Learning to take charge of your health as a young adult can feel like an overwhelming task. 

Patients today have the ability to utilize apps and the conveniences of telemedicine. As more options to receive medical care become available digitally, there are fundamental tools that can assist you in the physician selection process.

My advice is to begin establishing strong patient-physician relationships with your trusted doctors based on open lines of communication and accessibility. Realize that partnering with physicians best suited for your overall health care needs takes time and some effort. How can you begin the process? Choose a doctor that will listen to you, and you will feel comfortable discussing your concerns. Choose a doctor that is accessible through email, text, cellphone, or digitally. Choose a doctor that believes in shared decision-making to address your medical needs.

Become vested in your health and trust your instincts, especially when something doesn’t feel right. Do not hesitate to bring a concern to your physician
or let it go unaddressed. Self-advocacy is an invaluable life skill that will serve you in all facets of life, not just in safeguarding your health.

When young and healthy, many delay building any relationship with a physician. What might motivate them?

Imagine the stress of trying to find the right physicians in the midst of being diagnosed. My family’s health challenges have taught me the importance of having strong patient-physician relationships in place. Partnerships we built with our trusted doctors helped save our lives. 

In 1974 at 27 years old, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  He was delivered the devastating prognosis of less than six months to live. Fortunately, he had an established patient-physician relationship with his family doctor, who advocated for him, connecting him with the chief of oncology at an academic hospital. The oncologist considered my father a candidate for one of two clinical trials. Placed in the aggressive trial, he was treated with intensive experimental chemotherapy drugs. Fortunately, his life was saved. My father attributes his second chance to the trusting relationship he had with his family doctor. He beat cancer once, but the unwelcome visitor returned again almost 37 years later. Partnering with his physicians through both cancer battles is the reason he lives to tell his story today.  

The ideal time to begin doing the groundwork to establish a doctor is precisely now, when you are young and healthy. It will be beneficial in the long run in the event there is a new development with your health. I encourage you to schedule an appointment with a doctor you will feel comfortable with overseeing your medical needs.

How do you find a doctor—what should you ask to make sure she or he is the best for you?

There are primarily three resources I take into account when selecting a doctor. First resource: I refer to my current team of trusted doctors and ask for their recommendations. Second resource: I seek advice from family, friends, and social media sites. Specifically, I want to learn about their overall experience with a doctor I am considering, especially what kind of bedside manner he/she displays. Third resource: I utilize the internet. Today, information such as patient ratings, testimonials, and the physician’s credentials can be viewed online. All of these factors combined influence my decision-making process.

A checklist of some suggested questions I have found helpful when choosing a physician are:  

  • What is the policy for sick visits? Are same-day appointments available, and if not, what is the expected wait time to be seen?
  • Do the office hours work for your schedule, and is the front desk easy to navigate?
  • How does the physician choose to communicate with patients?
  • What is the policy for after-hours calls, and who typically returns the calls?
  • Are telemedicine visits an option?

When did you become a better self-advocate?

Self-advocacy is a journey. Two experiences shaped and empowered me to become a stronger advocate for myself and loved ones. The first, which I share in my TEDx talk, was during my second cancer battle. The second is when my daughter was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis at 8 years old.  

At the doctor’s office, a flu shot was required to begin treatment to get my daughter’s arthritis under control.  I explained her diagnosis to the nurse. The nurse gave us the option of a flu shot or flu mist. Needles petrified her. To alleviate further stress, we opted for the flu mist. I was not aware that with her condition, she was unable to receive live viruses, like the flu mist. This was a breakdown in communication. As her advocate, I should have spoken up and asked more questions, specifically if there were any concerns with the administration of either vaccine with her arthritis. If I had, possibly the situation could have been prevented. As a result, treatment was delayed several weeks as she continued dealing daily with stiff and painful joints.  

However, the breakdown in communication was a blessing I will always be grateful for. At this defining moment, I realized I had to become the most powerful advocate on behalf of my daughter, myself, and loved ones. Our health and well-being depended on it.

So part of advocacy means being deeply informed?

As a result of the missed communication with my daughter, I realized how quickly an unintentional medical error can occur and health could be compromised. I do feel being well-informed and asking questions are some important factors of advocacy.

Six years later, the lessons I learned as a result of my daughter’s flu vaccine experience continue to influence how I advocate for myself and loved ones. I make all physicians and their entire team treating my daughter aware of her condition. With any pharmacist administering medication, I inquire if there are any concerns or potential side effects to watch for. At doctor’s visits, I come prepared with questions and concerns. It is my responsibility to relay any health changes to her doctors. Taking the extra time to update the entire team of physicians that oversees her medical needs can decrease the chances of important information being missed and a medical error from occurring.

Little did I know the vital lessons I learned to advocate on my daughter’s behalf would prepare me for the fight of my life when I was diagnosed with my second cancer battle. Please learn from our challenges as well as our triumphs with our health. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being vested in your health, partnering with your trusted physicians, and becoming a powerful self-advocate. These are tools that can potentially help save your life one day, as they have saved mine twice!

What is your take-home message?

There is no better time to become an activated patient than now, regardless of your age.  

Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. In order to begin decreasing the occurrences of medical errors, there needs to be awareness and understanding of the challenges surrounding the problem, which I address in my TEDx talk. This is a monumental problem, and we cannot expect any one party to tackle it alone, especially physicians. They need our help. In order to spark the momentum of change, we need to partner with our doctors as activated patients. What does this mean? As patients, we need to be empowered to become vested and take charge of our health care. We cannot rely on our physicians alone. As patients, it is important to communicate our desired health outcomes to our doctors. We are the ones receiving the care. As patients, we need to play an active role in the shared decision-making process. This can result is us receiving better medical care.  

Partnering with our trusted physicians, self-advocacy, and becoming an activated patient can help us tackle the third leading cause of death, decrease the occurrence of medical errors, and help save lives!