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.

Hearing that you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or some other serious condition can be a life-changing moment. Finding the best treatment option to manage it takes a bit longer, but it can make a major difference in your health and well-being.

Patients often think only their doctors and nurses know what to do. And they do have skills and training to help you. But keep in mind that you're the one with the serious condition. It is important to understand your condition, know how medicines make you feel, and describe what matters most to your quality of life.

To help patients better understand their treatment options, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has a developed new tips, consumer guides, and other resources. You can even read stories from patients who took time to learn about their treatment options.

Steve is one such patient. In 2005, the 33-year-old engineer weighed 300 pounds and was always tired. He thought his sleepiness was due to a thyroid problem, a condition shared by some family members.

Steve was shocked to learn he had type 2 diabetes. Caused by the body's inability to produce or use insulin, diabetes increases the risk for stroke, blindness, kidney damage, and other serious problems. Steve's doctor prescribed metformin, a pill to help control blood sugar. He also told Steve to change his diet and go to a diabetes education group.

Steve started a diet with more meat and fewer carbohydrates, which helped him lose weight. But the diet also caused Steve's blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol levels to rise, so he needed more medicine. Meanwhile, Steve could not find a diabetes education group near his work.

Steve knew he needed more information. He began to learn about and compare his treatment options. He visited the American Diabetes Association Web site. He read how different diabetes medicines work. He found a different one that worked better.

Today, Steve's diabetes is well under control. He recently finished a 100-mile bike ride!

Annie Randolph, who got her high blood pressure under control after two hospital visits, also explored her treatment options. When she was first diagnosed with high blood pressure in 1991, Annie wasn't told how serious it could be. If untreated, high blood pressure can cause strokes, heart attacks, and kidney problems. Annie also didn't know that it is called the "silent killer" because some people have no symptoms.

Her first real scare came when she didn't feel well and went to her doctor's office. Her blood pressure level was so dangerously high, Annie's doctor sent her to the hospital right away. After she went home, her doctor prescribed medicines, but Annie admits she did not take them properly. Then she stopped taking her medicines.

After a second stay in the hospital, Annie got serious. She learned more about high blood pressure and different treatment options. Working with her doctor, Annie found the right combination of medicines. She also exercises, now that she knows how important that is to keep her blood pressure under control.

In addition to patient stories, AHRQ's information on treatment options includes:

Today, we have more options than ever before to treat many diseases and conditions. By learning your options, you can find ways to feel better—and live better.

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

Resources

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Explore Your Treatment Options
http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/options/

Effective Health Care
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
Your Guide to Diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2
http://www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/type1and2/

American Diabetes Association
http://www.diabetes.org/

American Heart Association
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/AboutHighBloodPressure/About-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_002050_Article.jsp

Page last reviewed August 2011
Internet Citation: Why You Need to Explore Your Treatment Options. August 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/080211.html