SCARBOROUGH — The six-month anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act marked the start of many key protections for health care consumers.

Prior to the passage of the new law, we heard the opinions of health care industry representatives, policy-makers, and pundits, but the voices of patients – the ultimate health care consumers – were often difficult to hear in the midst of all the rhetoric.

Now, it’s time for patients to seize ownership of these new protections – along with their health care dollars, their health care and their health.

One of the best, easiest, and most cost-effective ways for patients to do this is by becoming better partners with their health care providers – their doctors, nurses, and practice teams – in the pursuit of quality care.

Health care providers want the best outcomes for their patients and work hard to make sure their patients get the care they need. However, patients often don’t appreciate how important and vital a role they themselves play. Communication between patients and health care professionals is essential for the appropriate delivery of quality care. And that can only happen when both patients and providers are equally engaged.

There are simple steps that patients can take to become better health care partners and get better care:

Ask questions. Patients can prepare for an appointment by making a list of questions to ask, such as: “How is this treatment going to help?” and “Is there a downside?”

Be sure to understand. If providers use medical terms patients don’t understand, patients should ask for an explanation in plain language as well as written instructions. Misunderstandings between patients and providers are downright dangerous.

Be involved in making health care decisions. If a provider recommends tests or treatments, patients should feel free and be encouraged to ask for the information necessary to make an informed decision, such as why a certain test is needed and how the results will be used.

Use quality of care information. Patients can get data about the quality of care delivered by doctors and hospitals throughout the state by visiting the Maine Health Management Coalition website (www.mhmc.info).

Patients can also take ownership of their health and give themselves quality care by staying healthy, including being active, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating healthy foods, and by seeking care as soon as they need it. Delays in getting care can make health problems more serious, more costly, and harder to treat.

Quality care also means that providers need to make patients comfortable enough to ask questions and share relevant personal information. Many patients still expect one-way communication during an appointment – the provider talks and the patient listens – and, therefore, they don’t take part in health decisions. That’s why it’s so important for patients to speak up and for providers to encourage patients to ask questions and use the many tools that are now available.

The website for Quality Counts (www.mainequalitycounts.org) has such tools, including downloadable Maine “Pathways” brochures for diabetes and preventive care designed for patients to use to help themselves be healthier and to get better care in partnership with their providers.

In Maine, we’re working to forge better patient-provider relationships through participation in Aligning Forces for Quality, a national initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to improve the quality of local health care. The Maine initiative is led by Quality Counts in conjunction with the Maine Health Management Coalition and the Maine Quality Forum.

Our organizations are working to help improve the quality of care by measuring and publicly reporting on the quality of local care, helping health care providers learn how to deliver better care, and engaging patients in making informed health care choices.

Solid provider-patient relationships don’t come easily. Patients will continue to be anxious at times and providers won’t be freed from professional pressures any time soon.

But part of health care reform has to mean that patients will take ownership of improving the quality of their health care by taking steps to become better partners with their providers and more active in their own health.

 

– Special to The Press Herald