You’ve called every contact in your phone to announce the great news, and now the long pregnancy road lies ahead. In the coming months, you’ll be making a lot of visits to your doctor, hearing words you recognize (ultrasound) and those that sound like they belong to a prehistoric era (preeclampsia?).

Your head may soon be bursting at the seams from the myths and conflicting information that swirl about the internet and the media. It may seem easier to sit back and go along for the ride, letting your doctor make decisions for you and your baby.

While listening to your doctor is always a smart choice – they have, after all, been in school for nearly a decade – that doesn’t mean you should take everything they say as the golden rule, law of the land, or whatever phrase meaning “unconditional” you prefer. As an expecting parent, you have the right to be a partner in the decision-making process. Being proactive and well-informed will not only make you feel better about your pregnancy, it prepares you for parenthood after the bump becomes a wailing, wriggling, completely lovely baby in your arms. You will spend the rest of your life worrying about your child, Googling what that rash is, and basically trying to predict and prevent every danger that could befall them. Why not start now? After all, knowledge is power.

Doctors Are Human. There, I Said It.

Recently, a friend of mine had a baby girl. As a preemie she was already tiny, so her repeated vomiting after every feeding wasn’t helping her reach a healthy weight. The doctor told my friend that every baby spits up and it was totally normal – but his parental instincts told him something was very wrong. After begging the doctor to run some tests, they discovered she had gastrointestinal clamping that wasn’t allowing food to pass from her stomach. It doesn’t end there. To treat the condition, the doctor prescribed medication that had a rather concerning side-effect – it induced seizure-like convulsions in her tiny, fragile body. Again, parental radar went off. After doing thorough research about the drug, again they asked the doctor to reconsider his choice (the prescription wasn’t easing the condition), but he refused to take her off the meds. Until, that is, my friend and his wife demanded it. They went with their gut, and probably ended up saving their little girl’s life.

I’m not a doctor, but I am a parent. The point of this anecdote is not to make you question every decision your doctor makes. It is to point out that seeking knowledge is part of your duty as a parent, and this means asking questions and doing research to put yourself in the best position to care for your child.

Doctors are painted by society as all-knowing, all-powerful beings. While they were hitting the books in med school, many of us were out being rambunctious twenty-year-olds. So when your parental intuition is screaming that the doctor is wrong, how do you handle the situation? Hesitancy to voice a gut feeling is hardly rare in a medical setting. Most of us feel intimidated the moment we step into a doctor’s office, surrounded by charts of body systems that look more like abstract paintings. Don’t let feelings of intimidation keep you silent. 

“We the Patients”

Like most patients, a new parent often feels overwhelmed and uncertain. To ease these feelings, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services developed the Patients’ Bill of Rights to promote communication between healthcare providers and you. It establishes a standard set of expectations, hoping to instill greater sensitivity in your doctor and greater understanding and security in you. Medical facilities nationwide have adopted the bill, to empower patients to ask for and receive the treatment they deserve.

The Patients’ Bill of Rights may not be taught in history class, but it’s important to know all the same. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

You know that thick packet of papers you get when you go to the doctor? They usually come in various pastel colors to make it seem fun, but we all know it’s a dreary task of checking boxes and circling “yes” or “no.” However annoying it may seem, there are two reasons why you should take the time to properly fill out these forms. First, all the information you provide is going to translate to better care. The more your doctor knows about medications you’re taking (yes, even herbal supplements) and your family’s medical history, the better off you are. Secondly, a copy of your Bill of Rights is hiding somewhere in that stack, as required by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, and it’s worth finding. Some key tenets, according to the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners, are:

  • Get in the Loop

You have the right to right to fully participate in health care decisions. What does that mean? It means your inner mommy (or daddy) voice can, and should, be heard. While you ought to take your doctor’s opinion into careful consideration, they are just like any other professional providing a service. When our car breaks down, we usually head to the internet to look up the problem and which mechanic we want to take it to. It’s the same thing with doctors. Remember, though, everything you read on the internet isn’t fact. Presenting concerns and research to your doctor should be encouraged, if only to debunk all the confusing myths out there. If they seem offended that you’re questioning them, perhaps you should consider switching doctors.

  • Know Your Stuff

You have the right to receive accurate, thorough, and easily understood information. Don’t know the meaning of Alpha-fetoprotein? Ask! Questions are the key to being a proactive, knowledgeable parent. By asking questions the minute you don’t understand something, you can decide whether you want to raise any objections and avoid unwelcome surprises down the road. Don’t be embarrassed to ask anything, from where your baby really is on that fuzzy ultrasound screen, to whether the C-Section your doctor is recommending is really necessary. At the end of every appointment, ask yourself: Do I know what’s happening next? Find out who’s calling who with updates, and when.

  • Go Over Someone’s Head

If you’re having a problem with your care, you have the right to speak with whoever’s in charge, even the hospital supervisor. For example, if the person who’s treating you can’t answer your questions or seems to be brushing off your concerns, ask to speak with someone higher up who will hopefully take you seriously. You know your body (and your baby) better than anyone, and if you fear something is wrong, your anxiety deserves to be addressed. However, try to keep calm and make this request politely and confidently.

  • Get a Second Opinion

Don’t worry about insulting your current doctor by getting a second opinion, or even switching physicians altogether. As an expectant parent, you need to be completely happy and secure with your healthcare provider. After all, they are helping you bring another life into this world. If you’re uncomfortable, you and your baby are better off seeing someone else. While changing doctors late in your pregnancy is not usually recommended, sometimes it’s necessary. To help you make the decision, talk to a friend or family member with a fresh perspective on the situation – they can either confirm your worries or give you a reality check. Although you don’t have to, you can even talk to your old doctor before you switch. Hearing why you’re dissatisfied will only help them better serve patients in the future.

As a parent, your expectation to be informed and involved doesn’t make you pesky or high-maintenance. It makes you smart. Unfortunately, many mothers are not aware that this Patients’ Bill of Rights even exists.

Remember: Hospitals Are Companies, and Doctors Are Businessmen

Even women living here in the United States with highly trained doctors can be victims of tragedy. In fact, the maternal mortality rate has increased substantially, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – from 396 in 2000 to 650 now. I don’t state this fact to scare you, but to prompt you into action. While poverty, pre-existing conditions, obesity, teen pregnancy, and lack of prenatal care are the most widely publicized reasons for maternal death, many of the fatalities are completely avoidable, according to United Press International.

When a doctor prescribes a drug, we assume it’s always an independent judgment based solely on our health needs. Wrong. Many physicians receive payments for speaking or consulting on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, reports NPR. On one hand, this is not against the law and can be seen as educating the public about new treatments and medications. On the other hand, it may be a conflict of interest – is your doctor prescribing the drug because it’s the best option, or is he prescribing it because he’s getting what amounts to kickbacks from the pharmaceutical company? Doctors, being human as we’ve decided, might not tell you about cheaper or less risky alternative medications because they want to pocket a little extra cash. Furthermore, they might be prescribing a drug as an extra layer of protection between themselves and a medical malpractice suit. They don’t want to be accused of undertreating you later.

I don’t know whether my friend’s doctor had an ulterior motive for prescribing the drug he did, but I do know you have the right to ask if your doctor has a relationship with a drug company, and whether that relationship involves payments. Most importantly, you have the right to ask about all your options before popping that pill.

Although every doctor is taught in med school to base their decisions on your health, they can be just as susceptible to attractive sales reps and comped dinners as the rest of us. We all want to think our doctor is rooting for us, especially when they’re responsible for two lives in one package, and most are completely honest with the best of intentions. Sadly, some aren’t. Being a parent with knowledge means being a parent with power. Take control of your own health and that of your innocent little one.