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How to Steer Your Health Care Where You Want It to Go By Denise Logeland

Say you have a preference about the kind of treatment you want from your doctor. Maybe you dislike the cost, the risk

of side effects or just the idea of depending on prescription medications and building your day-to-day routines around

them. You want to give priority to alternative treatments like walking, yoga, nutrition or meditation whenever that

makes sense.

Or maybe there’s something important in your life — a family event, a sport you want to pursue, a craft — and you

want to keep your health issues and your health care from interfering with it if you can.

How do you make sure that your preferences and priorities get on the agenda with your health care providers? And

how do you make sure they stay on the agenda beyond a single office visit?

“You have a right to ask” for that, says Dr. Phyllis Hayes-Reams, chief of the department of geriatrics for Kaiser

Permanente of Southern California. Ideas like patient preference and quality of life tend to get linked to end-of-life

care, but health care providers “want to move the conversation upstream” she says, to all the years that come before

end of life.

What You Want Is Person-Centered Care

“It’s the things that aren’t said that cause us to go down the wrong path” sometimes, Hayes-Reams adds. “Most

physicians would welcome the opportunity to know what’s important to the patient, because it gives them some

guidance.” She acknowledges that time-constrained appointments can make this a challenge on both sides of the


Dr. Debra Saliba served on an American Geriatrics Society panel a couple years ago that pinned down a definition of

person-centered care and the central role that people’s individual preferences and goals should have in shaping their

care. In short, the definition said that:

  • providers should ask about a person’s values, goals and preferences
  • they should use that information to guide all aspects of the person’s care
  • and they should do so in a coordinated and collaborative way as a health care team, including coordinating with the patient and other people the patient may want to include in the care relationship.

Saliba, a physician in the Los Angeles Veterans Administration health system, is also director of the University of

Southern California Los Angeles/Jewish Home Borun Center for Gerontological Research and the new president of the

American Geriatrics Society (AGS). The definition of person-centered care mirrors a focus on quality of life that

geriatricians have had for years, she says. But in her field and across the health industry as a whole, there’s still a

long way to go before the AGS definition of person-centered care is a reality in patients’ experience of care.

“I think it’s aspirational for the health system,” Saliba says.

While the system is working on change, there are things that individuals can do move their own care in a more person-

centered direction, both Saliba and Hayes-Reams say. Here are their tips for you to use with your health care


1) Don’t settle for a one-sided conversation with your doctor.

“Screening, prevention, diagnosis and treatment approaches should all be premised on what a person’s preferences,

priorities and goals are,” Saliba says. In her own practice, she asks her staff not to order a test unless they’ve asked

first if the patient wants to go where the results might lead, whether it’s more testing or a treatment regimen. Listen to

hear if your health care providers are having those kinds of opt-in or opt-out conversations with you. If they’re not and

if you have the opportunity to change providers, do so, Saliba says. “At a minimum, do they talk with you about the

risks and benefits of tests and treatments? Do they give you choices?” she asks.

2) Understand the big picture of your own health and functioning.

You need to know this to have a foundation on which to base your goals and priorities. The big picture is more than

your list of diagnoses or medications, Saliba says. Think about your ability to move and function: How easy is it for

you to stoop, kneel, bend to pick things up or lift your arms above your shoulders? Do you have trouble walking,

balancing or doing daily tasks like showering? Saliba helped develop a tool for thinking about functional health. The

name, VES-13, which stands for the 13-item Vulnerable Elders Survey, makes it sound like something that’s just for

the frail elderly, but it can help anyone assess their own functioning, Saliba says. You can download the VES-13 here.

3) Prepare for appointments by thinking about your health goals and questions ahead of time.

It’s common to feel a little rushed in appointments. The best way around it is to plan and write a few notes for yourself

in advance, say both Hayes-Reams and Saliba.

4) Be ready for, and not frustrated by, dialogue.

If you’re that patient who wants to avoid medications, Hayes-Reams points out that it’s a process of talking through

the pros and cons of new medications. With existing prescriptions, it usually means discussing what to try decreasing

and winnowing out first.

Saliba says there are other facets of communication that take patience, too. “Don’t see an interruption as a lack of

interest” in your priorities, she says. Often it’s a sign of the opposite, an effort by providers to make sure they’re

“getting” what you’re saying. Likewise, don’t be frustrated if a doctor or nurse asks something you’ve already explained

to another provider. It might be in your medical record, but a provider might ask the question anyway as “a way of

opening up a topic and then moving into more detail,” Saliba says. “And sometimes patients’ answers change from

provider to provider.”

The whole process of care is based on dialogue, Saliba adds. When a patient tells her about a personal goal or

priority, she’ll ask, “To what extent do you think you’re achieving that now?” and “If that need is not being met now,

what are the barriers?” She is trying to uncover “mismatches” between a person’s goals and present reality, Saliba

explains, to figure out what kind of intervention she should suggest.

5) Ask providers to document your goals and preferences when necessary.

You can ask to have your priorities, preferences and goals added to your medical record, if that’s not already

happening. Hayes-Reams says: “That’s the patient’s medical record,” not just the health system’s. Getting what

matters to you into the record might make it easier in future appointments or with other providers to bring the focus

back to those goals.

6) Ask if providers are talking with each other.

If providers aren’t making well-coordinated efforts, it’s cumbersome for patients to navigate the health system, Hayes-

Reams acknowledges. Her advice: “You really have to own your care.” Ask providers if they’re talking with each other

and ask them to do so if they’re not. If you’ve requested that a provider share information with others, follow up to

make sure that it happened. It’s work, but until health systems can more widely adopt the use of care navigators,

Hayes-Reams says, there is no “magic answer” to the challenge of care coordination on the individual patient level.

7) Find a care partner.

In light of the effort it takes to steer your care in the direction you’d like it to go, enlist help. For frail elderly, it’s

especially important to have an adult child or someone else come along to appointments to help by taking notes or

asking questions, Hayes-Reams says. But that kind of help is something anyone can benefit from. Ask yourself, she

says, who can “be your advocate and your other set of ears.”

Right at Home Washington DC

1818 New York Avenue NE

Suite 219

Washington, DC 20002

202-269-0008 (office)

202-499-6968 (efax)

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