How to own your healthcare experience: Tips from Dr. Benjamin Chu, Memorial Hermann President & CEO

How many times have you walked out of your doctor’s office confused, uncertain or befuddled about your diagnosis, your treatment options or your medications?

It happens to the best of us. A recent article in the New York Times authored by two Ohio-based physicians explored the true meaning of informed consent, a concept in the healthcare industry that essentially means that patients must understand the procedure, surgery or treatment, including the risks and benefits, before it is given to them. The problem is that sometimes patients don’t fully understand their physicians’ instructions, and many fail to take the extra step to clarify their questions.

As physicians, our top priority is to help patients heal by providing them with treatment options that are right for them. And, to achieve the best experience possible for our patients, we strongly encourage our patients to play an active role in shaping the conversation about their own care plans.

Health care is unquestionably confusing – there’s a reason, after all, why doctors must spend so much time in medical school learning these complicated concepts – and in our hectic society where we are all stretched thin, patients may feel as if their doctor doesn’t have enough time to fully address all of their concerns.  I urge you to become your own healthcare champion as we work together to improve the patient care experience.

Here are my top five tips to help ensure you are well-informed and comfortable with your treatment plan before leaving the doctor’s office.

Don’t be shy. Medical providers sometimes have a habit of slipping into complicated medical jargon, and that can be confusing for patients. Speak up if you don’t understand what the doctor is trying to explain; it’s important that you understand your own care. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. What does this diagnosis mean? What is the medicine for and why do I need to take it? What are the benefits of treatment? What are the risks?

Bring a friend. If possible, bring along a trusted companion to your doctor’s appointments and hospital visits, whether that’s a spouse, a relative, a friend or even a neighbor. Depending on the reason for your visit, it’s possible you might become emotionally overwhelmed by the news or information you receive from your care team. Having a companion in the room can help in many ways. From prodding you to provide information you may have forgotten to share or helping you to remember the important takeaway messages once you leave the appointment, their support and mere presence in the room can be immensely helpful.

Repeat after me. Using your own words, rehash any and all instructions your provider has given you. Not only will this help you remember the most important pieces of your care plan, it will also help your clinician get a feel for whether you truly grasped what he or she has explained. By repeating back the plan for your care, you are helping your provider know that your consent is not merely informed but actually understood.

Be your own best advocate. Research your diagnosis, learn about any tests or procedures your doctor has recommended and read up about your medications. Ask about alternative treatment options or other possible diagnoses. Call to ask for your test results if you haven’t heard back within the provided response time window, and be sure to request an explanation of what the test results mean. If you require a medical procedure, be sure to learn as much as you can about the risks and benefits, and what you can do to better facilitate your own recovery. For example, patients with diabetes face a significantly higher risk for infection following surgery. You can limit those risks by working with your provider to properly manage your blood sugar before, during and after a hospitalization. And, of course, be sure to read the labels on your medications to ensure you are taking them as prescribed.

Take notes. Keep detailed records of your medical history, including any illnesses and conditions you have, any treatments you have received and all medications you are taking. Bring those notes with you to every appointment along with any written questions you may have about your care plan, so you don’t forget anything you wanted to ask. Be sure to take notes while meeting with your provider so you can reference them later on.

Improving the patient care experience is the responsibility of everyone involved, and we encourage our patients to get involved. By becoming active, properly informed partners in the care process, patients can ensure they are receiving the very best treatment plans that are right for them, and all parties can be comfortable knowing they are truly together on the same page.

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