Patients must take greater control of their health care, both to avoid risky and unnecessary treatments and to help slow skyrocketing medical costs, speakers at a health conference in Lexington said Friday.
Unfortunately, conference speakers said, even well-educated patients often are reluctant to speak up because they fear being branded as troublemakers or worry that they won't receive care. But the costs of staying quiet can be staggering.
Dr. Leana Wen, physician, author and clinical fellow at the Harvard University Medical School, cited the case of her own mother, who didn't speak up when doctors repeatedly dismissed her persistent cough as only a virus. A year later, Wen's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She later died.
"Make sure your doctor knows that you expect an equal partnership in your care," Wen urged the audience. "Don't leave the doctor's office without knowing what your diagnosis is."
The sixth annual Conference for Healthcare Transparency and Patient Advocacy was sponsored by Health Watch USA, a Somerset-based health advocacy group. It was designed to help empower patients.
"Our healthcare system is rapidly changing, and a lot of people don't know what is going to happen," said Dr. Kevin Kavanagh, Health Watch USA director. "Patients really need to empower themselves now."
Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders stressed the same theme in her comments at the conference. She said 90 million American patients are "health illiterate," often not understanding the treatments their doctors prescribe.
Elders said medical errors annually cause deaths at the rate of "four jumbo jets crashing each week." But at least 44 percent of errors are preventable, she said.
Despite that, Elders said, patients often don't speak up when they disagree with prescribed treatments. Studies show that even among college-educated patients only about 14 percent are willing to express disagreement with their providers.
Elders offered several suggestions to help patients communicate better with physicians, such as keeping detailed lists of all medication they take; demanding results of their tests; and making sure doctors explain all treatment options.
Wen, author of the forthcoming book When Doctors Don't Listen, said patients suffer when they don't take such steps. She described a 42-year-old mechanic who went to the doctor complaining of a "twinge" in his chest. After an overnight hospital stay, X-rays, an EKG, a cardiac catheterization and large medical bills, he learned that he only had a simple muscle pull, she said.
Wen blamed timid patients and doctors who are increasingly too rushed to talk with patients and practice "cookbook" medicine.
Author Rosemary Gibson said the situation also contributes to the growing problem of medical overuse, in which U.S. providers prescribe billions in unnecessary tests and procedures each year.
Gibson, author of the book The Treatment Trap, cited a study suggesting that 30 percent of Medicare expenditures are wasted on unnecessary treatments.
"We don't have that money to waste," she said.