Rules of the Road Navigating the Health Care Information Highway

The health care information highway is forever getting wider and longer.

With a few clicks of a mouse, patients can get enormous amounts of knowledge on medical topics from A to Z from thousands of sources. Nonprofit agencies, hospitals, insurers, medical associations and journals, universities, government agencies at all levels, and commercial enterprises all have a wealth of information on their Web sites.

The media is playing a bigger role, too. More space and time are being devoted to health care news, and more health care providers – physicians included – are appearing on radio and television and writing columns (like this one) for newspapers and magazines.

The kind of information is expanding as well. Not only can we find details on prevention, diseases, and conditions, but we can also learn about those who deliver our care. The state, for example, is now offering data that ranks hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors on their cost and quality of care and lists surgeons by the number of operations they perform. Health care coalitions, like the Massachusetts Health Quality Partners, are compiling quality measurements on physician group practices and conducting surveys of practices and physicians on patient satisfaction.

These new efforts in making health care more “transparent” to patients are good steps. They let you the patient know more about health care and be more in control of your health care. They also provide guidelines for physicians and providers to improve and provide better care for their patients.

But caveats are needed here. Health care information is multiplying rapidly, and because measuring quality in health care is a complex and new endeavor, patients should proceed with caution when judging information.

Here are five cautionary steps, applicable to any source of information:

• Make your primary care physician at least one, and preferably your first, stop on your information journey. Your primary care physician should be one of your most trusted sources of information. If you don’t have one, get one, or if you’re uninsured without a physician, try to build a relationship with a provider that may be available to you elsewhere.

• Make sure the information source is credible, authoritative, and trustworthy. Find out exactly who the source of the information is and what kind of experience they have in compiling such data.

• Check to see if the information is up-to-date, reliable, and accurate. When was the data gathered, and how long did it take to collect and organize before it was released? If it’s a research project, how many people participated, for how long, and under what conditions?

• Be sure you clearly understand the data, know that it’s meaningful to you, and how it applies to your particular situation.

• Don’t make a major decision based on a single source of information or study. Seek more details and other opinions. Employ some healthy skepticism, bolstered by more research. Evaluate the information all together – pros and cons, advantages, and disadvantages.

The importance of having a primary care provider cannot be overstated. It’s this physician who oversees and coordinates all aspects of your care, working with specialists if and when needed. That’s why the information you use and the time you spend in choosing a physician is so critical.

The Mass. Medical Society offers suggestions on how to choose a physician at www.massmed.org. The Board of Registration in Medicine, a state agency that licenses physicians, maintains “Physician Profiles,” a site with background information (searchable by name, specialty, location, and hospital affiliation) on every physician licensed to practice in the state at www.massmedboard.org, and the American Medical Association’s (www.ama-assn.org ) “Doctor Finder” can also help.

Good information leads to better decisions. Just make sure that the information you use is varied, valid, and meaningful. That way, your ride on the health care information highway – and your health care experience — will be much smoother.

Alan M. Harvey, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and director of Quality Assurance/Quality Improvement and Patient Safety, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School. Physician Focus is provided as a public service by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Readers should use their own judgment when seeking medical care and consult with their physician for treatment. Comments toPhysicianFocus@mms.org.

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