Every year, there are new options for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases and health issues. Having a variety of choices, however, can make the process of making medical decisions more complex and confusing. But three simple steps can guide you through the decision-making process to more informed medical decisions.
Start by gathering information
The first step in the process of making an informed medical decision is to gain a good understanding of the health issue you’re facing, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, an increased risk of heart disease or chronic back pain. Ask your doctor to clearly define your specific diagnosis and to convey the results of any diagnostic tests you’ve undergone. Your physician should explain your diagnosis and test results to you in clear, easy-to-understand language and answer any questions you have about the diagnosis.
If you’re diagnosed with a serious illness, your diagnosis or treatment plan is not clear, or surgery is the recommended treatment option, it’s wise to get a second opinion. Physicians’ recommendations are influenced by their individual expertise, experience, preferences and biases. Doctors and medical facilities have their own approach to diagnosis and treatment and use their own set of procedures, techniques and technologies. Getting multiple expert opinions allows you to see different views of the problem and to weigh the pros and cons of different treatment solutions.
Step two: Understand your treatment options
In an ideal world, your doctor would present you with a complete list of treatment options that are appropriate for the health problem you face. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. This is where it’s important for you to be a proactive part of the process of medical decision-making.
You can research your condition and potential treatment options online, but the information can be overwhelming or misleading. Making sure that the information you gather online is backed by objective, evidence-based science can be difficult. By getting second and even third opinions from other physicians, you can educate yourself about the risks and benefits of each option. Another alternative is to work with a health advisor who can provide you with in-depth, objective scientific information about the full range of treatment options and about appropriate clinical trials to consider.
Step three: Carefully evaluate your alternatives
Once you’ve gathered the information you need, you’re ready to make a fully informed medical decision. Weigh the risks and benefits of each option. Writing out a pros and cons list can be helpful. Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential harms or side effects? Does the treatment align with your goals? For example, would physical therapy allow you to adequately reduce your back pain and return to the activities you want to do or do you need surgery to achieve those goals?
Making medical decisions should be a collaborative process between you and your physician. There is no one “right” treatment for any given health problem. Even with a complete portfolio of objective information in hand, the decision you make will be based not only on the scientific evidence, but also on your individual values and goals.
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