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.

But for many years, we haven't been able to get this kind of information about health care. Being an involved consumer is easy when you're buying a new car. It's much harder when you're trying to find high-quality health care.

This is beginning to change, but I wish it were changing faster. The quality of our health system is not as good as it should be. Clinicians and health care organizations are working to create systems that make safe, high-quality care routine, but progress has been slower than all of us want.

You may have heard that about 100,000 patients die each year in hospitals from medical mistakes. Another study showed that when patients go to a doctor's office they get the right care only about half of the time.

Quality is improving—by about 3 percent a year, according to a recent report from my agency. But we need to do much better.

You can play an important role in pushing the health care system to improve by being more involved in your own care.

Today, we know more about the types of care that you need to stay healthy. Also, we know more about the kinds of treatment you might need and how to measure the quality of care that hospitals provide.

Information on health care comes in many different forms, but not all of it is good. You've probably seen articles or TV programs that describe a "ground-breaking" test or procedure or rank the "best" doctors and hospitals in your area.

Good health care information is available, fortunately.

To improve the care you receive, organizations have developed information about medical conditions and hospital quality. These groups do not gain financially when you make a decision about different treatment options or choose a particular hospital. This information can be found on the Internet on your home computer or at your local library.

Here are some places to get information about medical conditions and hospital quality:

  • Healthfinder.gov: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services developed this Web site for consumers. It provides links to more than 1,500 health-related organizations.
    Go to: http://www.healthfinder.gov
  • Hospitalcompare.hhs.gov: This government Web site provides information on how well hospitals treat patients who have been admitted for certain medical conditions.
    Go to: http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov
  • Quality Check™.org: This Web site is a guide to health care organizations and is sponsored by an organization called the Joint Commission. You can search by city and State, or by name and ZIP Code (up to 250 miles).
    Go to: http://www.qualitycheck.org/consumer/searchQCR.aspx
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Many nonprofit organizations provide education and support to patients and their families about certain diseases. They can direct you to physicians who are experts in treating those diseases.

Getting good information is an important first step to get better health care. Use this information to ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist questions about your condition. You need to become more involved in your own health care to have a better chance of getting the right treatment at the right time in the right place.

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

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
How to Ask Tough Questions of Your Doctor  (Transcript)

Healthfinder.gov
http://www.healthfinder.gov

Hospitalcompare.hhs.gov
http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov

Quality Check™
http://www.qualitycheck.org/consumer/searchQCR.aspx

Page last reviewed October 2007
Internet Citation: Becoming an Involved Health Care Consumer. October 2007. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/103007.html