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How to Take Part in Every Medical Decision

In some medical situations, there’s a clear right answer regarding which treatment is best.

In other cases, such as breast or prostate cancer, for instance, there are several valid treatment options, each of which is effective, and what’s best for you can depend on your values, preferences, the stage of your condition, cost considerations, and the risks and benefits that go along with each choice.

Do your research

Well-informed people who play a significant role in deciding how they’re going to treat their health conditions are likely to feel better about the decision process.

The following strategies can help you take part in every medical decision you’ll face.

  • Ask your doctor to recommend and explain the most effective treatment options for your condition.

  • Learn about your condition and the recommended treatments, gathering information from reputable Web sites, books, self-help groups, and patient organizations such as the American Diabetes Association (http://www.diabetes.org). One of the best Web sites to visit is the National Guideline Clearinghouse (http://www.guideline.gov). It provides information based on scientific evidence about which treatments work for certain conditions and which don’t. Another good site is the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (http://www.ahrq.gov/), which includes recommendations on preventive screenings.

  • Take time to consider your personal preferences regarding your quality of life and family situation and how they relate to your treatment options. For men with prostate cancer, for example, aggressive therapy can lead to serious and unwanted side effects, but it can also mean a longer survival. An otherwise healthy man younger than 80 may choose more aggressive therapy. A man 80 or older might choose watchful waiting, which has no immediate side effects on quality of life but can feel like a passive response.

Ask for information      

The general information about your condition that you gather from Web sites, books, or articles may not apply to your particular condition. Decisions about tests and treatment should be made after considering any other health conditions you have, your age, and medications you take for other conditions. Having accurate information about your specific case is necessary before you make a decision on treatment options, medical tests, or surgery. Ask your doctor the following questions about how treatment will specifically affect you.

Treatment questions:

  • What are the chances the treatment will work?

  • What are the risks and benefits?

  • What are the side effects?

  • Is the treatment painful? How can the pain be controlled?

  • How much does the treatment cost? Will my health plan pay for it?

  • Who would do the treatment and where would it be done?

Once you have the answers to these questions, make a chart of “Benefits and Risks” or “Pros and Cons” to help you decide if the treatment is right for you.

Medical test questions:

  • If the test is positive, what will you do differently?

  • How accurate is it? 

  • Is it painful? What can go wrong?

  • How much does it cost?

  • Is there a less expensive test that may give the same information?

  • Will my health plan pay for it?

Weigh the balance

After you know the facts, you must decide if the benefits outweigh the risks.

Working with a doctor with whom you have open communication can help you clarify your treatment preferences, taking into account medical research and your personal concerns.