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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.

We like to think that the quality of our health care system is the best in the world. When one of our loved ones recovers from a life-threatening illness, we believe our doctors and hospitals are the best at what they do.

But for all the great results that many patients enjoy, there are too many examples where patients don't get good health care. Sometimes the care patients receive makes their condition worse. In the past few years, we've had to face some difficult facts about the quality of our health care system that you, as an involved consumer, should also know.

For example, did you know that as many as 1.5 million medication errors occur in hospitals each year? Or that one in five elderly patients is given medicines that may not be good for them?

This makes those of us who care about health care quality upset because we know medical errors can be prevented. Our health care system is becoming safer, but progress is slow despite our best efforts. We need to work harder on putting solutions in place that we know make health care safer.

Let me give you one more example of how quality can vary. When you go to your doctor, you probably think you are getting the right care for a person your age, sex, and with your medical history. But in fact, you get the right care only half the time.

When I say "right care," I am referring to the treatment you should receive if you are sick. Right care also refers to treatments that can help you from getting sick in the future.

Right care can be achieved when doctors and nurses follow the advice of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. This is a group of doctors who are experts in identifying when or if you need to be screened for various illnesses, like cancer and heart disease. Screening tests are important because they can detect diseases when they are easiest to treat. But if you have only a 50 percent chance of getting this advice, the odds are not good that a disease will be found early.

So, what can you do to make sure you and your family gets the right care at the right time?

There's plenty, but it starts with you being an involved consumer. Ask questions at your next medical appointment. Take the time to learn what kind of screening tests a person your age needs. Learn about your condition if you or a loved one has received a diagnosis, and make sure you ask questions about treatment options.

My agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, or AHRQ, has developed tools that can help you get prepared for your next medical appointment. AHRQ's Question Builder (select for More Information) helps you get ready to talk to your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about tests, medications, surgery, and other issues.

You can also quickly learn about the kinds of screening tests you should have to help find diseases early, when they are easier to treat. AHRQ's Pocket Guide to Good Health for Adults will also help you find out about tests and exams to find cancer and to prevent illnesses like the flu and pneumonia.

Being involved, asking questions, and learning more about the tests that you need to stay healthy are all excellent ways to get the right care at the right time.

Don't wait until our health care system has learned how to eliminate all mistakes about the care you or your loved ones may need. The sooner you become involved, the better off you—and our health system—will be.

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

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
Navigating the System and How to Spot High-Quality Health Care (Transcript)

Question Builder
Put together a list of questions to ask your health care provider.

Women: Stay Healthy at Any Age
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendations for women's health.

Men: Stay Healthy at Any Age
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendations for men's health.

Page last reviewed November 2007
Internet Citation: Health Care Quality: Take A Closer Look. November 2007. 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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