How Do We Involve Patients in Their Own Healthcare Decisions?

Carolyn Clancy, MD


November 30, 2007

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As physicians, we are beginning to see patients becoming more involved in decisions about their care. Even though this is a major change to how we practice medicine, it will, over time, create a genuine partnership between doctors and patients.

Research shows that patients who left doctors' offices with even 1 unanswered question reported the lowest level of improvement in their symptoms. In addition, these patients reported being less satisfied with their care.[1] Other studies show that patients who ask questions and become more involved in their healthcare are more likely to follow clinicians' instructions and report better results.

However, many patients are reluctant to speak up -- because they don't want to admit that they don't understand something, because they are overwhelmed by their illness, or because language, health literacy, or cultural barriers get in the way.

Today, health care providers have come to recognize the importance of clear, ongoing communication, including questioning why a particular treatment decision was made. We need to engage our patients in the same way. To that end, my agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, has developed a new public awareness campaign with the Ad Council to encourage patients to take a more active role in their healthcare.

You will soon begin to see or hear public service announcements urging patients to ask questions of all their health care providers. The education campaign also includes a Web-based Question Builder at which helps patients create a list of questions for their next medical appointments.[2]

As physicians, we have an obligation to help our patients understand the decisions that affect their health. While it may challenge our way of practice, it is the right thing to do.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, director of the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and that's my opinion.

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