Nurse Empowers Patients to “Take Charge” of Their Health Care

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By Christina Orlovsky, senior staff writer

If knowledge is power, then Joyce Hyam, RN, BSN, hopes to use her knowledge to make superheroes out of her patients. Through wellness and prevention education, the public health nurse from San Diego, California, has made it her mission to put the power of health care into the hands of consumers. Her book/organizer, “Take Charge of Your Life,” is her means of doing just that.

A registered nurse for nearly 30 years, Hyam spent 25 years in home health, working for various agencies before eventually starting her own home health care agency in Northern California. After 13 years, Hyam sold the business, and in the past few years, she has decided to stop treating the symptoms of disease and really get to the root of the problems ailing Americans today. She’s asking for their help to do it.

Through fill-in-the-blank sections about personal information, family history, medications, appointments and test results, “Take Charge of Your Life” encourages readers to increase their awareness about their medical care. Hyam’s “188 tips for healthy living” alert patients to important health information and, most importantly, prompt them to ask questions of their health care providers if they feel something is amiss.

“A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that as many as 98,000 medical errors are made each year,” Hyam said. “These numbers won’t go down until people start asking questions of their providers.”

Hyam added that it’s important for people to do their research, go to their physician’s office prepared and feel comfortable enough with their provider to raise the issues that are concerning them.

According to Hyam, her book was inspired by her two decades working in home health. A pocket-sized organizer, “Take Charge of Your Life” is designed to be carried around by the patient for convenient access to important health information. You never know when you’re going to need it.

“I have found that a lot of things can be prevented if people are aware of what to do,” she said.

Hyam decided to take the years of questions she received from patients and address them in a book she hopes will teach readers to be their own health advocate. All of the topics addressed in the book, “Take Charge of Your Life” are some Hyam has experienced with patients, friends or family members throughout her years in nursing.

“I can think of a situation behind every tip in the book,” Hyam said.

Some of the topics, which range from pharmacy information and allergies to nutrition and mental health, were influenced by the experiences of home care patients, while others—including those related to medical errors—were inspired by events in Hyam’s personal life.

Nearly 20 years ago, Hyam’s best friend—also a nurse—was suffering from frequent headaches, which were diagnosed as migraines. Nine months after the diagnosis, however, her friend experienced more symptoms. After undergoing a brain scan, her doctor detected a brain tumor. Hyam’s friend died from complications of that brain tumor.

The tragic occurrence prompted Hyam into education in the hopes that fewer people will suffer the same fate her friend did from a medical misdiagnosis.

“A lot of times people are afraid to speak up, or they don’t think they’re entitled to get another opinion, or they stay with one doctor out of loyalty, even if he’s not providing the best treatment,” she said. “A lot of things can be prevented if people find a provider they’re comfortable with and learn to speak up.”

But Hyam also believes the onus of improved care is not only on the patient to ask questions, but also on the provider to encourage greater participation by the patient.

“Nurses can teach patients what to look for, what signs and side effects to acknowledge, and teach them to speak up,” she said.

They should also be willing to receive knowledge from their patients.

“A health care provider should always be open to new things,” she said. “I always learned from my patients about different things that worked for them. When we’re closed-minded, there can only be negative outcomes. You have to learn from other people.”

After all, knowledge really is power.

For more information or to order “Take Charge of Your Life,” visit Joyce Hyam's Web site.

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