3 Keys to Becoming a Savvy Patient

Post Written By Casey Quinlan

This originally appeared on the Emmi Solutions "Engaging the Patient" blog as part of their 2014 Health Literacy Month series.

There’s an old joke that has a guy asking a passer-by on the street how to get to Carnegie Hall. The passer-by answers, “Practice.”

That’s a core truth for most of life. Learning how to ride a bike, learning how to do math, learning how to read a map – all take some basic instruction, and then some dedicated practice. Learning medicine requires a big wallop of instruction, followed by some very dedicated practice. The best docs admit that the description of the profession of medicine as a “practice” fulfills both meanings of the word – as a noun, the repeated exercise of a skill; and as a verb, to repeatedly perform a skill to maintain proficiency.

The same is true for those of us on the patient side of healthcare. We learn how our bodies work, and how we individually respond to different things, from food allergies to types of exercise to physical environments. When we interact with the healthcare system, we need to bring our own knowledge, and use that knowledge to be an active part of our healthcare team.

That’s Key #1: Bring Your Brain

The level of knowledge that you, the patient, bring to a medical encounter doesn’t have to be MD-level. It does have to be fully informed about YOU: your symptoms, your history, your goals, your philosophy of life. Health literacy does require that you work to avoid being what I call a “meat puppet” – in other words, showing up with nothing more than, “hey, doc, I got this pain … fix me!” That would pretty much guarantee a not-so-great outcome: over-treatment, under-treatment, or, worst of all, the wrong treatment.

You don’t have to work through the tutorials on the Brookings/Khan Academy partnership site built to educate both clinicians and the general public about how healthcare works (although you could – it’s great!). What you do have to do is be aware of what you body’s up to, and track any symptoms that show up. Form a partnership with your primary care team. Make a point of thinking through how you’d manage a health challenge like a diagnosis of cancer or Parkinson’s or diabetes. Write down how you’d like to be treated if you wind up unable to direct your own care, and make sure you designate someone to speak for you when you can’t speak for yourself.

The partnership approach will create a framework for your care team to know you well, to know your physical and mental health, and to work with you to create the right treatment protocol for whatever health issues arise for you. If and when a diagnosis does present itself, for anything from cancer to diabetes to arthritis, you can do some of your own research on Medscapethe Mayo Clinic, or TheNNT.com, and share what you learn with your clinical team.

There’s Key #2: Be A Partner

So you’re using your brain, and you’ve formed a partnership with your care team. What’s Key #3? Actively manage your care. That involves keeping your knowledge base sharp (Key #1), and keeping your teamwork sharp (Key #2). There’s a bit of secret sauce in this step, because you’ll be teaching your clinical team in Key #3, as well as learning from and working with them.

What can you teach your clinical team? First, you can teach them how you want to be treated – both medically and personally. Make your goals clear about the outcome of any recommended treatment, and ask questions about what other treatment options or approaches might be for whatever your illness or condition is.

You can also teach your clinical team about the costs of the treatments they recommend. That might sound surprising, but not too many MDs or RNs know what the cost of their services and recommendations are. Since you, and your insurance plan – either individual or employer-sponsored – are on the hook for those costs, knowing before you buy makes sense, doesn’t it? When you’re shopping for any other big-ticket item, you look at cost and quality of various options before making a purchase, right?

Asking “how much is that?” in a clinical setting can sometimes kick off some sketch comedy – “how on earth would I know that?” or “the insurance company says we can’t tell you” or even a blank stare. Here’s where your teaching moment appears. You can teach your clinical team how much their services cost, so they can answer questions about cost from other patients. You’ll be fixing the US healthcare system, in real time, from the ground up.

I can hear you saying, “but how on earth can I find out costs, if they don’t know how to?” It’s easier than you’d think. There are searchable databases online that can give you answers to the “how much is knee arthroscopy?” or “what does an MRI with contrast cost?” questions. The one I use the most is ClearHealthCosts.com. The Wall Street Journal has a great guide to figuring out healthcare costs available here. NPR affiliates KQED and KPCC have an ongoing project called Price Check where they’re crowdsourcing real cost data from California healthcare consumers. Any of those links will open up a cornucopia of “how much is that?” information.

So … there they are. The keys to becoming a savvy patient, a smart consumer of healthcare services:

Key #1: Bring your brain

Key #2: Be a partner

Key #3: Actively manage your care (including its cost!)

Be smart. Be savvy. Stay healthy.