Resolve to Be a Smarter Patient
With the first deadline for complying with Obamacare’s insurance requirements looming large, it may be hard for many Americans – especially patients in our broken healthcare system – to think about anything else. But the start of this new year may be a better opportunity than most to refocus on not just the usual weight loss and fitness resolutions, but on your broader healthcare needs as well.
Losing excess weight, especially fat, and improving your fitness are worthy goals in their own right. But their real payback is in avoiding disease and the medical interventions they require. If you’re obese or even moderately overweight – or your weight is “normal” but you’re physically unfit – your risk for one or more chronic diseases is substantially greater than average.
Chronic diseases are life-long burdens that can substantially shorten your life, increase your pain, and lighten your wallet unless you reassess your priorities as a patient and devote more time and effort to measures designed to keep you out of hospitals as much as possible.
That’s because hospitals can be dangerous places – hotbeds of infection and errors that can harm as much as heal (see Our Healthcare Sucks for more on this). Reducing this risk of medical injury – variously estimated as causing up to 440,000 avoidable deaths every year in the U.S. alone – should be a prime new year’s resolution for anyone with a chronic disease patient in their family.
Focus on Communication
Many of these medical errors are attributable to the poor communication between many medical specialists caring for the same patient.
Merely closing this communication gap by fully understanding your treatment plan and communicating openly with each medical specialist can significantly reduce errors and improve treatment results. It can also avoid duplication of services that end up costing you more and exposing you to greater risk of injury.
Your primary focus as a patient should be on the poor transitions in our fragmented healthcare system. These are ripe for miscommunication about your medical condition, your treatment plan, and a host of other details important to your medical treatment and outcome – as well as your medical bills.
There are a handful of crucial transition phases in your treatment that are notorious sources of medical errors:
Referral to another physician – Does the new physician have your medical record, lab or imaging results, etc.?
Hospital admission – Inaccurate patient information on admission can cause errors in treatment. Communication between your hospital doctors and your office-based doctor is often non-existent. Even hospital-based doctors seldom communicate with one another because they don’t get paid to and they’re stressed and distracted as it is;
Changes in shifts while hospitalized – Shift changes are common sources of medical error as caregivers often fail to fully communicate each patient’s medical condition, needs, etc. This is compounded by understaffing on nights and weekends that limits the ability of these caregivers to proactively seek missing patient information;
Hospital discharge – This is another area where poor communication and lack of clear instructions to patients often cause avoidable hospital readmissions. Insist on a written discharge plan and confirm whether scheduling a follow-up appointment with your primary care physician is urgent and whether he or she has received a copy of your discharge plan; and
Start of new academic year in July – This is when new residents and interns start at academic medical centers, with higher rates of medical error probable during their first few months of training (July – September).