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.

These days, an appointment with your doctor may give you just enough time to cover the basics: reviewing your medical history, discussing the reason for your visit, and finding out if you need followup tests or medicines.

But medical appointments usually don't allow much, if any, time for questions.

It's hard to ask questions when you're not sure what the problem is or how to express your concern. That's why it's important to be prepared for appointments by thinking of your questions before your visit, writing them down, and bringing them with you.

Make sure to ask your doctor, "Is this a good time for me to ask questions?" If it's not, ask your doctor how and when a time can be set up. By doing this, you are telling your doctor that you need more information.

Why am I stressing the need to ask questions about your health care? Because patients who ask questions get better quality health care and can get better results.

Here's just one example. It took 2 years of questions and followup before actress and health advocate Fran Drescher learned she had uterine cancer. Today, Ms. Drescher is an 8-year cancer survivor, due in large part to her asking questions that eventually led to the correct diagnosis.

For many health conditions, getting an early diagnosis improves treatment results. In 2008, 40,000 women were diagnosed with uterine cancer for the first time, according to the American Cancer Society. For those diagnosed early, the 5-year survival rate is more than 95 percent.

To help patients feel more comfortable about speaking up, my agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Ad Council teamed up to produce new public service announcements for our Questions are the Answer campaign. (Other AHRQ and Ad Council campaigns encourage men to get the right preventive care screenings and encourage Hispanic men and women to visit a doctor to get preventive tests.)

The new campaign, which began last month, builds on the original campaign that was launched in March 2007. Those ads reminded patients in a light-hearted way that doctors "can't read their minds."

In one of the new ads, a confident, assertive woman asks a series of questions to her waiter but clams up at her doctor's office. Another ad shows a man grilling a salesperson on every feature of a new cell phone but becoming silent in front of his doctor. The take-home message: Ask questions of your medical team.

You can see the new ads at our . In addition to the ads, the site includes a list of 10 questions patients should consider asking at medical appointments.

The Web site also features a "question builder" that lets patients create a personalized list of questions to bring to their medical appointments. This is a very useful feature because it's easy to forget a question—even a basic one—when we're taking in a lot of new information.

As a physician, I know how important it is to hear a patient's questions because those questions can be the key to providing the right care. And as a patient, I know how important it is to be heard. Make sure you think about your questions before visiting your doctor and ask for the time and information you need.

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

More Information

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Questions are the Answer

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Build Your Question List

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Real Men Wear Gowns

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Conozca las Preguntas

Current as of May 2009
Internet Citation: Asking Questions to Get the Care You Need. May 2009. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/050509.html