Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., has prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They will 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. Check back regularly for new columns.

Whether it's high blood pressure, cancer, or diabetes, chances are good that you or a loved one will develop an illness or medical condition. Chances are also good that you will have to choose among some options for how you want your illness treated. And you'll need information to help answer the straightforward question: "What's the best treatment option for me?"

The question sounds simple, but it's not easy to answer. Each week, we hear results of new medical studies. But often this new information often does not help us figure out the steps we need to take to protect our own health. At times, these studies seem to disagree with earlier advice, which can make it difficult for us to make clear decisions.

To help patients make good decisions, health researchers are comparing how different treatments work to manage or cure a disease or condition. This type of research is called comparative effectiveness. It usually compares two or more types of treatments, such as different drugs for the same disease, types of surgery, and medical tests.

Researchers compare several kinds of results, which are called outcomes. Some outcomes include how much relief patients get from their symptoms, whether patients need to go to the hospital, and what kind of side effects drugs may have.

For example, one recent report that compared two different kinds of high blood pressure medicines found that both types worked equally well. However, the study also found that the drugs had different side effects and risks. This is important information when you and your doctor make a decision about treating high blood pressure.

Comparative effectiveness can help patients learn about the pros and cons of surgery or treatments. For example, men diagnosed with prostate cancer that has not spread to other parts of the body (called localized prostate cancer) usually have a few treatment options to choose from. These include watching to see if this slow-moving cancer grows, having surgery or radiation, and getting hormone treatments.

To help patients learn more about their options, researchers put together a new guide on treatments for prostate cancer. It describes these treatments and their side effects and lists questions that patients may want to ask their doctor.

Research can't tell us yet which treatment option is best for treating localized prostate cancer. That's why it's important for patients to have information about the benefits and risks of each treatment so they can make informed decisions.

Researchers across the United States who are part of the Effective Health Care Program did this research on prostate cancer. The program is sponsored by my agency, the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality. Their results are used to create guides for patients and doctors based on published scientific evidence, so patients can trust that the findings are unbiased. In fact, some of our Effective Health Care guides have been used by Consumer Reports for its Best Buy Drugs series.

Today, patients are getting more involved in their health care decisions. I'm glad to see this happening, but I know that we also need more information about treatment options, benefits, and risks. Comparative effectiveness research is helping us answer the question, "What's the best treatment option for me?"

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

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
Comparative Effectiveness—What Is It?  (Transcript)

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Effective Health Care Program
Glossary
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/tools.cfm?tooltype=glossary&TermID=118

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Effective Health Care Program
ACEIs or ARBs for Adults with Hypertension Consumer Summary Guide
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/healthInfo.cfm?infotype=sg&DocID=31&ProcessID=12

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Effective Health Care Program
Treating Prostate Cancer: A Guide for Men with Localized Prostate Cancer
Consumer Summary Guide
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/healthInfo.cfm?infotype=sg&DocID=98&ProcessID=9

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Effective Health Care Program
The Program
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/aboutUs.cfm?abouttype=program

Consumer Reports
Best Buy Drugs
http://www.consumerreports.org/health/best-buy-drugs/index.htm

Current as of November 2008
Internet Citation: Guides Help Patients Find Their Best Treatment Options. November 2008. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/111808.html