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Speak Up for Better Health Care

Suggestions for communicating more effectively at the doctor's office

by Paul Green, Director of Performance Improvement

Whether it’s for a routine procedure or major surgery, checking into a hospital can be a stressful experience. After all, no one wants to be in the hospital, and it’s normal — perhaps even unavoidable — to feel anxious, especially when people you may have never seen before are in and out of your room to take your temperature, check your blood pressure and give you medications.

However, by taking an active role in your health care, you can ease your anxiety and, at the same time, help ensure that you’re getting the best possible care from your providers.

Communicating with doctors, nurses and health professionals

One of the very first things you should do is give yourself permission to ask questions and express concerns. Too often, patients are hesitant to ask a question or request an explanation because they don’t want to insult or offend their physician, nurse, or other caregiver.

What these patients need to understand is that asking questions isn’t about insulting people. It’s about taking responsibility for your own health care and realizing that medical professionals, like the rest of us, are human and capable of making mistakes. You have a responsibility to yourself to make sure that the care you need is the care you receive.

For example, one issue that has been garnering a great deal of media attention recently is hospital-acquired infections. Don’t hesitate to ask your caregivers to wash their hands or use a hand-sanitizing product. Again, don’t worry about offending anyone by making sure their hands are clean. Rather, you need to know that the right things are happening for your health. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

Suggestions for effective communication with your doctor

In fact, “speaking up” was the basis for a national campaign for patient safety by The Joint Commission, an independent, not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies more than 15,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. SPEAK UP™ urged patients to take active roles in preventing health care errors by following these guidelines:

  • Speak up if you have questions or concerns. If you don’t understand, ask again. It’s your body and you have a right to know. Write down your questions in advance and bring them to your appointment.
  • Begin with your most important questions — too often patients wait until the end of the appointment to bring up their most pressing concerns, and at that point, the physician may not have time to adequately address them. Start off with your biggest question so that your physician knows what to focus on.
  • Pay attention to the care you receive. Make sure you’re getting the right treatments and medications by the right health care professionals. If a routine changes — for example, someone wants to take you to the lab for a test that you doctor didn’t discuss with you — say something.
  • Educate yourself about your diagnosis, the medical tests you are receiving, and your treatment plan. Ask your health care provider for reasonable, patient-worded, reliable health care information about the diagnosis whatever particular health care issues you have,
  • Ask a trusted family member or friend to be your advocate. It’s a good idea to bring a family member, significant other or support person along to help ask questions and listen to the answers, and even take notes for you. If either of you needs more information, speak up.
  • Know what medications you take and why you take them. Medication errors are the most common health care mistakes. If you are given a medication that you haven’t seen before, ask what it is. If you usually get a pink pill and someone brings you a blue one, or someone gives you medications in the morning when you usually get them at night, ask why.
  • Use a hospital, clinic, surgery center, or other type of health care organization that has undergone a rigorous on-site evaluation against established state-of-the-art quality and safety standards, such as that provided by The Joint Commission.
  • Participate in all decisions about your treatment. You are the center of the health care team. A patient care advocate I know uses the following slogan: “Nothing about me without me.”

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Paul Green, director of Performance Improvement at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.