How to be your own patient advocate to get the medicine you need

Doctors have never been busier. The ratio of doctors to patients in Canada remains below rich country averages. The hours they work are declining and, as paperwork demands continue to increase, the amount of time they spend with patients is also falling. That was ongoing before the COVID-19 pandemic cut in-person visits and delayed surgeries. Now, it’s harder than ever to get a doctor’s attention and, for those seeking alternative treatment, like medical cannabis, it can seem impossible.

‘The burden on the healthcare system limits how much they have to give to you in a 15 minute appointment,’ says Kelsey Yee. ‘If you really do want to get better, the first thing you have to do is shine a light on yourself.’

Yee, a medical cannabis proponent, says that becoming your own patient advocate is especially true for less recognized treatments, like medical cannabis. While it is legal in Canada, Health Canada has not approved cannabis to treat any specific ailment. Many doctors are hesitant to prescribe it, leaving patients to navigate the treatment on their own. 

“If my doctor didn’t give it to me, but I still want to treat like medicine, that’s up to me,” Yee says. “The only person to advocate for you, is you.”

The process starts and ends with “self-care.” The idea is to take an active and scientific roll in your own health care regime: choosing the appropriate medicine, ramping up dosage, being mindful of reaction and response, recording it all systematically, reviewing the results and then reassessing. The charting or journalling aspects is especially important, says Yee, because the process teaches you to be present and check in with yourself.

“You’re flexing muscles that tell you about what your vehicle feels like,” she says. “Did it just get tuned up or is it running low?”

She uses an example of addictive behaviour, like over eating. When you feel the compulsion notice how you feel, measure it and write it down. Now add a medicine to treat the compulsion, like CBD-only medical cannabis. Gauge how it changes your psychological and emotional reactions and write that down. 

“If I’m able to monitor my behaviour, I can see it differently,” she says. “I create new patterns around the addiction. If I can measure that, I’m in control of something I wasn’t in control of before.”

By recording evidence of that reclamation in a journal, Yee says, it creates a testimonial and represents an act of care that goes beyond the self. 

Taken to a doctor’s appointment, the journal shows a methodical analysis of the use of cannabis as a medicine and provides valuable insight for the doctor in a language they understand and can use. It goes a long way in the patient-doctor line of communication. Where it’s easy to dismiss vague feelings, symptoms and assumptions, it’s harder to do the same with a detailed journal. And it contributes to a greater understanding of what medical cannabis can do.

“There isn’t a mass effort to educate doctors about cannabis right now,” Yee says. “Every time we take information to a doctor or caregiver we’re helping them understand what it can do and possibly contributing to them giving better advice to someone else.”

Done right, self care is not a selfish act, she says. It’s a contribution to greater understanding – particularly when it comes to the potential for medical cannabis. “It’s not just journaling for you,” Yee says. “We hope this will be the link that brings doctors closer to this conversation.”