When a diagnosis is made, ask the provider how the diagnosis was made. Some conditions, like an aortic aneurysm or certain early-stage cancers, are difficult to diagnose initially. Ask if additional tests should be performed to verify that the diagnosis is correct. If your doctor offers treatment options, take careful notes so you can review them after you've left the doctor's office.
There is a world of solid health information on the Web at: The National Institutes of Health, AARP, the Mayo Clinic, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other sites. Websites associated with hospitals, medical societies and federal health agencies contain science-based articles on conditions, methods of diagnosis and testing, treatment options, and benefits and risks. Opinion, advice or product promotion should be set apart from research results. A website on osteoporosis with testimonials about a "natural" treatment that "guarantees" a certain improvement in bone growth, for example, should not necessarily be taken at face value. Reputable scientists rarely guarantee anything. Make sure any results from medical studies cited are from research that has been published in a medical journal, and not merely "publication expected." Studies published in scientific journals have been reviewed by other scientists to make sure methods used to arrive at the results are sound.
Choose your doctors wisely
Your search for a doctor should start with your health plan so you can find out which clinics and providers are available to you. Get referrals, if possible, from friends, relatives or other medical providers you trust.
Look for doctors who are "board-certified" in the type of medical care you need. "Board-certified" means that the physician has advanced training in an area of specialty. You can check a provider's qualifications, licensing information, education, background and any disciplinary actions against the physician at docboard.org, a website run by state medical licensing boards.
Set up an introductory appointment to interview the doctor. Bring your personal medical record and history to review. See if the doctor listens to you, invites questions and treats you with respect. Be sure to ask whether the doctor has experience treating your condition or performing the procedure you are considering, and what his or her results have been.
In choosing a hospital, consider where your doctor has privileges to practice. You probably also want a hospital that is covered by your health plan, and one with a good success record and low complication rate for the procedure you are considering. On a variety of patient care measures, such as complication and infection rates, attentiveness of nurses, whether medications are administered at the right time for your condition, and other factors, you can compare hospitals in your area at Hospital Compare, a website provided by Medicare.
Some states, like California, and some local medical groups also rate hospitals and maintain websites that cover key indicators of hospital quality, such as mortality and complication rates for many common procedures, and patient satisfaction (see, for example, calhospitalcompare.org).
When choosing a hospital, you can also check its accreditation and inspection reports by The Joint Commission (formerly the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations). This report will tell you how the accrediting agency rates the hospital on common errors, such as whether the wrong medication is given to patients often, or whether drugs are administered at the right time, such as antibiotics before, not after, surgery to prevent infections as the surgical site. Equally important is the hospital's ability to prevent you from acquiring an infection caused by one of the drug-resistant bugs rampant in hospitals, like MRSA. Both medication errors and hospital-acquired infections kill over 100,000 patients every year, and you want to choose a hospital that The Joint Commission rates as highly effective in protecting patients against these problems.