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My Medical Manager

Managing Your Medical Life

Tips and strategies for taking control of your health care

my medical manager

Taking an active role in your health care or that of your loved ones can be the gateway to better health. — Photo by David Arky

En español | For many health care providers, the most frustrating part of their job is piecing together the medical histories of patients who no longer remember which drugs they are taking for which conditions.

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Dr. Katalin Roth, director of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., says "Patients have a responsibility to keep a record with their medications and allergies, a list of chronic illnesses, and any special condition, such as a bleeding problem. Caregivers need that information, too. Those records could be crucial to helping health care workers save your life."

Keeping good medical records is only the beginning. The complexity of today's health care system means patients need to ask for complete information from their doctors about the benefits and risks of tests, medications and procedures, and to research the track records of specialists and hospitals before they undergo surgeries or complicated treatments. Taking a more active role in your health care or that of your loved ones can be the gateway to better health, but it also requires management skills. Here's what to do:

Organize your personal health information

As Roth notes, you need to give new doctors and others caring for you in an emergency a list of all the prescription drugs and supplements you take, your medication allergies, chronic conditions, and the surgeries you've had. You can use a sheet of paper, an index card, the memo function on a cell phone, or a file on a handheld computer. Ideally, you should have copies of recent test results, your family medical history, and the name of an emergency contact person. It's best to have these pieces of information in writing, because the one thing you forget could be the detail that matters most. Make sure your medical fact sheet is up to date.

Avoid unnecessary tests and procedures

When your doctor recommends a medical test or a procedure, he or she should be able to explain the reason for it, and the benefits and risks involved. You should know beforehand if the test will give a definitive diagnosis, or if more tests will be required. How much will it cost, and is there is a less expensive alternative? Will the test require hospitalization? What are the short- and long-term risks? Studies on the increasing use of CT scans, for instance, suggest that 20 to 40 percent of them provide little useful information and thus may not be worth the risks associated with getting the large dose of radiation they entail.

Likewise, the benefits and risks of any recommended surgery or procedure should be clear to you. What is the evidence that supports its safety and effectiveness for your condition? Are there less invasive options? If your doctor can't give you this information, get a second opinion.

Most insurance plans cover second opinions. Call your plan's patient services representative to ask if the service is covered. To find a provider for a second opinion, ask for referrals from family and friends, your health plan or your primary care provider.

Next: How to choose doctors and hospitals. >>

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