"How To Help Yourself or a Loved One Navigate the Healthcare System" By Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President and CEO

How To Help Yourself or a Loved One Navigate the Healthcare System

April 15, 2011 -Knowing how to best help yourself or a loved one thrive in today’s complicated and confusing healthcare system is important to your health. We have access to the best healthcare in the world but most patients and their families do not maximize their potential benefits because they do not understand the system.

Many times an illness, hospitalization, or accident becomes overwhelming, giving the patient and their support team more to deal with than just the sickness. A feeling of helplessness adds to the anxiety of dealing with the underlying health problem. Being organized, anticipating next steps, having the answers ready, understanding the process, are just some of the actions needed to effectively and efficiently handle the challenge of a health care event for yourself or your family.

Let’s start with the easy part, namely the papers you should have on hand for any emergency—including an unexpected hospitalization. A Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare is a written declaration appointing someone you trust to make decisions about you, should you become unconscious or unable to speak for yourself. An Advanced Medical Directive informs your physicians and family the kind of care you want to receive if you can no longer make your own medical decisions. A Living Will gives directions as to the care you want if you have a terminal illness or are in a persistent vegetative state, e.g. a coma. Do Not Resuscitate is an order not to restart your heart artificially or mechanically, in the event it stops beating or you stop breathing. This directive is important in end of life decisions.

If you don’t already have them, many of these documents are easily available though an attorney, on-line, and even when you are admitted into the hospital. Having worked through the decisions before you or your family are faced with an acute problem makes so much sense. The emergency ambulance ride to the hospital is not the best time or place to make important choices. Clearly, understanding all the options, having time to contemplate choices, and recording your own preferences in writing will help you and your caregivers. Removing the easy stumbling blocks early, so you can deal with the real medical issues, will facilitate your ultimate prognosis.

The next level of preparation includes having your medical history available in written—or soon in digital—form. Preparing a list of current medications, known allergies, past medications, treating physicians, recent results of lab and radiology tests sounds simple but can be daunting. Unfortunately, few patients have this information readily available for their physicians or emergency room personnel. Having this knowledge would have a very positive affect on the quality of care you would receive, adding to quality, reducing costs, improving outcomes, and making everyone feel better.

Being part of the health care team is also of paramount importance. We are all in this together. As simple a thing as knowing people’s names—care technicians, front office staff, nurses, therapists, support staff, consultants, covering physicians—helps team work. Your primary physician—a.k.a. the attending physician—is the “quarterback” of the team. Know your quarterback and make sure everyone else on the team understands that this person is responsible for calling the plays. Naturally, other physicians or specialists may be involved, and even take over, depending on the problem; however, you should always know the name of the individual in charge and who will communicate with everyone on the team, especially you and your family.

Finally and most importantly, maintain control of the situation. This feeling of being on top of the decision-making process helps your care, your emotions, and your outcome. Everyone wants you to be better. Together with good communication, appropriate preparation, reasonable expectations, and modern health care science—optimizing outcomes is realistic. We have available the best care in the world but it takes work and organization to get the best results. You can greatly increase your odds of a good outcome by being involved, invested, and prepared so that you are in control.


Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.