(CNN) -- Being an empowered patient means doing more than the bare minimum. It means taking an active part in your own health care.
Over the past year, we've brought you the extraordinary stories of ordinary people who took health problems into their own hands -- from a young girl who diagnosed her own condition in science class, to a wife whose memory of a disco tune saved her husband's life.
Your actions, however, don't have to be extraordinary: It's often the little, everyday things that mean the difference between a good health care experience and a bad one. Several common themes run through the stories of the people we've profiled. Here are the top lessons that emerged that can help you to become a more empowered patient in 2010.
1. Don't believe everything you hear (get a second opinion)
"Getting a second or even third opinion is critical, says Dr. Angelo Cuzalina, president-elect of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery (AACS). "The extra effort and additional consultations will undoubtedly educate you further... which is always self-empowering."
2. Ask a ton of questions
You've heard the phrase "there's no such thing as a stupid question," and experts couldn't agree more.
To make sure you get all of your questions answered:
• Take a list with you. Let's face it, doctors are often rushed these days, so it's up to the patient to be as prepared as possible. One good rule of thumb is to write down your questions beforehand, and take them with you. This can save both you and the doctor time.
• Schedule time for questions. When possible, try to schedule an appointment that gives you enough time to get all of your questions in. "Tell the receptionist you'd like an extended session," recommends Dr. Linda Reid Chassiakos of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, adding that "many providers set up longer visits at day's end where you can have their uninterrupted attention." Once you're there, get the stuff that's really troubling you out of the way first. "If you save the questions about the burning pain in your groin for a 'by the way' at the end of the visit, there won't likely be time to address your real issue fully."
• Be prepared for answers. Asking the right questions is great, but it's equally important to be prepared for the response."When the visit concerns a potentially serious problem, anxiety, fear, disbelief and denial are omnipresent ... the chance of you hearing exactly what the doctor says and remembering what you are supposed to do about it are slim," bioethicist Art Caplan says. He suggests bringing along someone you trust to be a second set of ears; if no one is available, bring a tape recorder and ask the doctor for permission to record what you are being told.
3. If you are going to use the Web, search smart
According to research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, eight out of 10 Internet users have searched the Web specifically for health information.
The Web is a wonderful resource for any empowered patient, but it can also be a pit of misinformation. "Remember that anyone can create a Web site about 'health' or 'medical treatments,' " says Dr. Rhonda Medows, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Health.
On the other hand, a proper search can render information that is useful, even cutting-edge. "Read medical literature to learn the documented facts about your procedure of interest," advises Cuzalina of the AACS. "It's worth it when you get facts that are supported by empirical evidence."
Here are some tips for surfing for health information on the Web:
• Check your URL. Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and Living Well expert for CNNHealth.com, says it's best to narrow your search to specific URLs. "Look for sites that end in .gov, .org or .edu, which generally provide credible information." But don't just stop there. Shu says that if your Internet research turns up something interesting or useful, share it with your doctor. "When patients do this in my office, I can confirm the information they have is medically sound, or suggest other sites that may be either more accurate or easier to understand."
• Protect your privacy. "Health insurance is a very personal transaction, so don't give out personal information," says Sande Drew, a patient advocate and consultant for Ehealthinsurance. She says to look for sites that allow you to initially search anonymously, prompting you to enter only your ZIP code, date of birth and gender.
• Compare and contrast. In many instances, you can check prices, hospital ratings and what services are offered online before your visit. "When a serious medical condition or emergency occurs, customers typically rush to the closest hospital, which may not be the best hospital," says Dr. Archelle Georgiou, president of a health care strategy firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Web sites such as Hospital Compare, My Health Compare, Health Grades and Ucompare Health Care allow you to compare hospital quality and patient satisfaction. Knowing your preferences in advance can help you decide quickly how to proceed if you ever need to rush to the emergency room.
4. Free and discounted care is out there
"In today's tough economic times, everybody is bargain hunting, trying to save pennies here and there," says UCLA's Chassiakos. But beware of scams, she warns. "If a bargain is too good to pass up, be prepared that there may be a catch."
Here are some ways to find dependable help:
• Pay what you can. The Department of Health and Human Services provides assistance through federally funded health centers. You pay what you can afford based on your income level. The services include everything from preventive care to dental work. Click here for more information.
• Find an advocate. When you get laid off and lose your health insurance, you may need someone in your corner. Several groups specialize in helping people find affordable insurance and free care, including: Coverage for All, Ehealthinsurance, Healthcare Advocacy, Patient Advocate Foundation and Patient Services Incorporated.
• Get prescription drug help. If you can't afford health insurance, or if your insurance doesn't include good prescription drug benefits, look for $4 generic drugs at many major supermarkets and drug store chains. Also, your state may offer a discount drug program. You can also check these private groups that offer prescription assistance: Chronic Disease Fund, FamilyWize discount drug card, HealthWell Foundation, Needy Meds, Partnership for Prescription Assistance, Rx Assist and Rx Hope.
• COBRA. If you're voluntarily or involuntarily laid off from your job, or if you experience a large reduction in work hours, you may be eligible for COBRA, a program that allows you to keep your employer's insurance. But there's one big catch: You have to pay the premium in its entirety, which can sometimes be upwards of $1,000 per month. As part of the congressional stimulus package passed earlier this year, people who involuntarily lost their jobs can have the government pay 65 percent of their COBRA premiums. Several rules apply. For more information, go the Department of Labor's Web site.
5. Paying attention can save your life
You know your body better than anyone else. If your gut tells you something just isn't right, then listen to it.
Here are some other ways paying attention can make a difference:
• Know your medications. Keeping track of what medications you're taking is crucial. Medows, from the Georgia Department of Community Health, recommends writing a word or two on the bottle to remind you of what the medication is for. "Life can get too complicated to depend on memory alone to keep track of everything," Medows says.
• Track your progress. If your treatment involves a prescription, change of diet or physical therapy, make sure you understand what you have to do each step of the way before you leave the doctor's office. "Clear communication is always a challenge. It's even harder when the stakes are your health," says Caplan, the ethicist. Write down the steps and keep track of how long before you should see improvement and when you should schedule a follow-up appointment.
CNN's Elizabeth Cohen, John Bonifield and Jennifer Pifer-Bixler contributed to this report.