Martine Ehrenclou, M.A., is a patient advocate and award-winning author of The Take-Charge Patient. Learn more about Martine and her work at

Getting the best medical care possible and preventing medical errors starts with you. This requires some preparation and an important change in attitude: from relying on your doctor for everything to taking some responsibility for yourself as a patient.

Doctors just can’t serve patients in the way they once did, and most are overwhelmed with patient overload and paperwork. It’s time to think of yourself as the hub of the wheel, complete with copies of your own records, list of medications, medical history, and other medical information. You wouldn’t go to your tax accountant without the proper information. It’s time to approach your doctors in the same way. You can do that with your patient toolkit.

Your patient toolkit is about organizing your medical information to prevent fragmented care. For most people, healthcare is extremely fragmented. For example, if you have a pre-cancerous mole removed, no one is going to tell your primary care doctor about it but you. You have to be the central communicator, and your patient toolkit helps you do that. The average Medicare patient sees two physicians and five specialists a year. Those with chronic illnesses see 13 physicians a year. It’s important to know that no one is going to communicate your medical events to your doctors but you.

During my 16-month chronic pain condition, I was seeing a number of different doctors and undergoing many different procedures, tests, and treatments. Having my own patient toolkit was extremely helpful. It saved me time, prevented medical errors, and supported my physicians’ efforts to help me. With only seven to 15 minutes with the typical doctor, you want to make the most of it.

How to create your patient toolkit

1. Get copies of your medical records. Get copies of pertinent medical records from your medical visits, including test results and reports from procedures, surgeries, and treatments like an MRI, CT scan, and blood work. You might have to sign a form to retrieve them and pay a small fee. Once you get the copies, place them in your health file at home and forget about them for now.

We do this because doctor’s offices and medical facilities are so busy that most don’t send our records when we need them. You want to be able to retrieve a piece of your records when you need them.

Your medical records are legally yours. Your doctor is simply the caretaker of them. If you get copies now, you’ll avoid the hassles and headaches that can so easily occur at a time that is not convenient for you or when time is of the essence. From now on, every time you have a medical encounter, ask for a copy of the medical record.

I’ll give you an example: I recently had an MRI of my foot. At the time of check out, I asked for a copy of it. Within 15 minutes, I have a CD in my hand (no charge), and I put it in my health file at home. I might need that at some point.

2. Create your health history. This is a very simple and brief list of major medical events you’ve been through in your lifetime. For example, when you were diagnosed with a serious illness or that time you had surgery. Write down the dates/years and what the diagnosis or treatment/procedure was.

If you see a specialist or leave your job and lose your health insurance, you’ll have to start again with a new doctor. If your doctor stops taking your health insurance or if you move to a new town, you’ll see a new doctor. Every time you see a new physician, bring your health history with you and hand it over.

3. Create your list of medications. Whether you put this in your smartphone or simply write it on a piece of paper that you carry in your wallet, create a list of your current medications and their dosages, over-the-counter medications, herbs, and supplements. Bring a copy with you every time you see a medical provider. You don’t want to be one of the 1.5 million people who are harmed by medication errors each year (this stat is from the Institute of Medicine). Know the names of your medications, their dosages, and what conditions or illnesses you take them for.

4. Create a list of questions for your doctor. Each time you see a medical provider, create a list of questions before you enter the office. It’s too easy for the stress of a medical visit to interfere with your memory. Before you know it, you’re walking out of the office having forgotten an important point. Besides, this list keeps you and your doctor on track.

5. Create a brief health summary. Create a summary that is an up-to-date account of what has happened to you physically since you last saw a particular doctor or if you are seeing someone new. This is a very brief document that lists your top three medical concerns, a brief description of how you’ve been feeling, your symptoms, any recent tests, procedures and surgeries you’ve had, and any new medications you are taking.