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Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

Former AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They address important issues such as how to recognize high-quality health care, how to be an informed health care consumer, and how to choose a hospital, doctor, and health plan.

Being diagnosed with a disease or condition can be a life-altering event.

Some diagnoses, such as cancer or heart disease, can be shocking if they occur at a time in life when you're expecting many more years of good health. Even when you suspect something isn't right, it takes time to accept the reality of a disease or condition and how it might affect your life.

Research shows that many people with a serious diagnosis share some of the same reactions and needs. It also shows that patients who are involved in their health tend to get better results from and are more satisfied with their care.

For these reasons, my Agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, developed a guide to help you find information and support after you receive a diagnosis. The document is available online and includes links to additional resources.

The guide describes steps you can take that may help you cope with your diagnosis and make decisions. It's helpful to follow these five basic steps after a diagnosis:

  • Take the time you need. Don't rush into making important decisions about your health. In most cases, you have time to examine your options carefully and decide what approach is best for you. Ask your doctor how much time you can safely take to make a decision about treatment.
  • Get the support you need. In addition to family and friends, you can find support from people who are going through or have been in the same situation. The Internet offers many online groups that bring together people with similar experiences. Hospitals and disease-specific groups often host support groups that can offer just what you need at a critical time.
  • Talk with your doctor. Good communication with your doctor can help you feel more satisfied with the care you receive. Write down your questions before you visit your doctor so you don't forget to ask an important one. Consider getting a second opinion from another doctor if you are unsure about or want confirmation of your doctor's advice.
  • Seek out information. Health information is everywhere. It's online, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on the radio. Be careful, though, because not all information is good information. You want to consider evidence-based information, which is drawn from a careful review of the latest scientific findings in medical journals. An excellent source of medical information for consumers is MedlinePlus. You may also want to get information from groups that deal with your specific condition. The health library section of the Government's healthfinder™ Web site is a good place to start your search.
  • Decide on a treatment plan. Talk to your doctor about treatments that have been found to work well for your condition. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons of each option so you are not surprised by a side effect. Make sure your doctor knows your preferences about different treatments, such as if you prefer medication over surgery. Based on this information, you and your doctor can develop a treatment plan to manage your disease or condition.

Finding out that you have a disease or condition is a difficult experience and one that many of us will go through at some point in our lives. With good information and support, you can become an active member of your health care team and increase your chances of a good outcome.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
How to Deal with a Difficult Diagnosis  (Transcript)

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Next Steps After Your Diagnosis: Finding Information and Support

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Health Library:

U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health

Page last reviewed September 2008
Internet Citation: Helpful Steps To Take After You Get a Diagnosis. September 2008. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.


The information on this page is archived and provided for reference purposes only.


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