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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.

The Internet continues to be a powerful force in how we live our lives, including how we find health information. A recent survey showed that between 75 and 80 percent of adults who use the Internet also looked for health information online. People who have a new diagnosis or a chronic disease are most likely to seek health information online.

Today, there's a vast amount of this information at your fingertips. Much of it is very good. However, not all of it is accurate, unbiased, or tailored to your needs. Some Web sites are solely concerned about selling their products or services. That's why I urge patients to pay attention to the information's source.

Government Web sites can be a great resource., from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is a site I find particularly useful for helping people stay healthy. It provides information in English and Spanish on hundreds of health topics, ranging from asthma to viruses. It also includes links to more than 6,000 government and nonprofit health groups.

The site, which was recently updated, has new features that make it easier for consumers to locate information quickly. One tool, the "Quick Guide to Healthy Living," gives you information about the top things you can do to stay healthy.

The Quick Guide:

  • Tells you how small steps you can take to improve your health can lead to big benefits.
  • Motivates you by showing you the benefits of healthy behaviors.
  • Provides you with tools, such as personal health calculators, menu planners and recipes, and lists of questions that you can take to your doctor's appointments.

Another new, useful tool on this Web site is called myhealthfinder. My agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, developed this tool with HHS' Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. This tool can provide you with advice on preventive care that is tailored to your age, gender, and risk factors, such as smoking. It also provides advice for pregnant women.

Based on what information you enter into the tool, you may get between 5 and 15 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations that you can print out and take to your next doctor's appointment. The Task Force is an independent panel of experts in preventive and primary care that my Agency sponsors.

For example, if you are a 35-year-old man, you would get recommendations to get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. Based on your family history and risk factors, you and your doctor may decide that you need additional preventive care.

If you are a 62-year-old woman, your recommendations would include getting an annual flu shot and being screened for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer. It would also advise you to have your blood pressure checked regularly and talk with your doctor about taking aspirin to prevent heart disease. Based on your family history, you and your doctor may decide that other tests and preventive care also are appropriate.

A wise philosopher observed four centuries ago that "Knowledge is power." Today, online tools like make it easier to find and use information on how to stay healthy. That's power worth having.

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


More Information

AHRQ Podcast
How to Find Good Information Online  (Transcript)  Podcast Help
Your Source for Reliable Health Information

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Pew Internet and American Life Project
The Engaged E-Patient Population: People Turn to the Internet When the Stakes are High and Connection Fast

Page last reviewed December 2008
Internet Citation: Online Tools Help Patients Find Good Health Information. December 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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