How to Make Better Treatment Decisions
Millions of Americans receive medical treatments that are unnecessary, costly and even harmful to their health, according to recent studies. On the other hand, millions of Americans don't get the treatments they need.
Often this occurs because people lack the information they need to make knowledgeable treatment decisions.
"When choosing a treatment, it's essential to check out all your options, make sure you have enough information to make an informed choice, and understand the risks and benefits of treatments or of doing nothing," says Helen Burstin, M.D., M.P.H., former director of the Center on Primary Care and Prevention at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
For many conditions, there's no one "right" treatment. You may have several options, each with its upsides and downsides.
The following recommendations can help you work through the decision-making process.
To find accurate information about your condition and treatment options:
Ask your doctor. He or she should provide you with background material specific to your condition and personal risk factors.
Visit the National Guideline Clearinghouse website. This site offers hundreds of evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for treating medical conditions.
Contact health advisory groups for your condition. For example, if you have arthritis, visit the Arthritis Foundation website. To find such associations, call the National Health Information Center at 800-336-4797.
Research the risks and benefits. To learn more about them, ask your doctor and investigate reputable sources. The Internet does not always supply accurate information. Reputable sources can be found at government sites such as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Library of Medicine, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Other sources include the medical school websites of major universities.
Questions to ask include:
What's the recommended treatment? Are there other choices?
What are the chances the treatment will work?
What are the expected results? When will I see them?
What are the risks and benefits?
Are there any side effects?
What happens if I choose to have no treatment at all?
How much does the treatment cost? How much will my health plan pay?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you might want to make a chart of "Benefits and Risks" to help you decide which treatment is right for you.
All treatments have both benefits and risks. Even complementary or alternative treatments, such as herbal products and vitamins, can be harmful.
Check out all your options. If your doctor prescribes one treatment, ask if there are others. For example, there may be several different medications available with different side effects or long-term risks.
"A good way to get a full picture is to go to multiple sources, including support groups and listservs, to find out what people who have taken the treatment you're considering feel about it," says Dr. Burstin.
Get a second opinion if you're considering surgery or another treatment that's high risk, expensive or experimental.
Once you and your doctor have decided on a direction, work together to develop a treatment plan you believe you can stick to.
"Studies have shown people who take an active role in developing their treatment plan have a better chance of staying on course," says Dr. Burstin. "It's really all about patient empowerment, understanding that you're in a partnership with your doctor."