At a recent public forum on improving quality and value in healthcare, an audience member asked how can patients know if the treatment or diagnostic test their clinician is recommending is really the best thing for them. This reminded me that the Agency for Healthcare Research and Policy (AHRQ), recently ppublished a two page tip sheet to help patients talk to their doctors and a web-page that helps people create a set of questions customized for their individual healthcare needs and situations.
While these are obviously useful tools, I realized that emphasizing patient-clinician communications is now more important than ever because of the growing trend toward “consumer directed healthcare” and “patient empowerment.” While these types of activities and insurance product may be able to reduce costs by incentivizing people to use less healthcare, how they effect quality is still uncertain. In addition, the enormous amount information available on the internet is making people well armed with data and facts, but not necessarily with knowledge. Even with a lot of facts and data, patients are much better off having another person, (i.e., a trained clinician), integrate all the information about their individual situation and present a complete perspective and set of recommendations. (This is why it is generally not appropriate for physicians to treat themselves or family members, i.e. because they cannot be both the patient – or family member – and provide an impartial and objective analysis.)
Asking Questions is Key for Communications and Quality Improvement
The AHRQ materials are valuable for improving the quality of care because patients may find themselves overwhelmed in a medical office, and forget to ask the right questions – particularly when faced with a new diagnosis or presented with a set of recommendations for treatment of an existing condition. Coming to the medical office with a set of written questions will help remind the patient what questions they want to ask, and help promote a conversation with the clinician about the patient’s needs and desires. Clinicians are generally much more receptive to patients who ask questions than to those who just present opinions, requests, or demands about their treatment.
AHRQ’s “Talking with Your Doctor” tip sheet, has two key messages for both policy makers and patients:
- Research has shown that patients who have good relationships with their doctors tend to be more satisfied with their care – and to have better results.
- Write down your questions before your visit. List the most important ones first to make sure they get asked and answered.
Checking for the Checklist
AHRQ’s web-page for creating customized question lists is a valuable resource not just for preparing to talk with clinicians, but also for choosing health plans, hospitals, long-term care facilities – as well as clinicians. While the list of suggested questions AHRQ is good, one item that I’d add is, “Does the hospital require the use of surgical checklists?” (FYI – I’ve written about how such checklists have been shown to reduce errors and improve quality, and I’ve suggested that patients ask their surgeons and hospitals if they use them – and if not, why not?)
And apparently I’m not alone in promoting greater use of checklists in hospitals. I recently heard that Health Care for All here in Massachusetts is pushing for legislation to require hospitals to use such checklists. I applaud their efforts to highlight this quality improving measure, but also want to note that there are arguments on both sides for whether legislation is the best route to improve quality of care at all hospitals. For example, how specific do we want laws to be in listing what hospitals and doctors are required to do, since laws can be difficult and time consumer to change? Conversely, how quickly and completely will hospitals and doctors change their practices if they are not compelled to do so by new laws? And are their other mechanisms besides laws to make these changes faster and more completely?
Questions are the Answer
Whatever routes are used to improve quality of healthcare, (e.g. legislation, patient empowerment, financial incentive, peer pressure, etc.), it’s clear that patients, advocates, policy makers, and others need to continue asking thoughtful and focused questions. As the website name for AHRQ’s customized questions list states, “Questions are the Answer.”