High-Quality Health Care
By Carolyn M.
October 16, 2007
Today, we know a
lot more about what health care quality means
than we did just 10 years ago. As our knowledge
of health care quality evolves, we are gaining a
greater understanding of the types of treatments
that work best for you and your family, whether
it’s for a serious disease, a chronic condition,
or a common childhood illness.
exactly, is health care quality? Here’s an
explanation that I find helpful:
To achieve the
best possible results, health care quality
the right thing (getting the medicines,
tests, and counseling you need),
- Doing it
at the right time (when you need them),
- Doing it
in the right way (with your health care
providers using the appropriate test or
straightforward, right? But this well-accepted
definition of health care quality does not
always match the type of care that health care
providers give and patients receive.
For example, ear
infections are one of the most common reasons
parents bring their children to the doctor’s
office. When their children have ear pain and
fever, many parents expect to receive a
prescription for an antibiotic.
But we now know
that over 80 percent of children with ear
infections get better within 3 days without
antibiotics. This is largely because most ear
infections are caused by germs that do not
respond to antibiotics. We also know that
prescribing antibiotics too often can make the
bacteria that cause some ear infections
resistant to these medications. This means the
antibiotics can’t work effectively.
As a result of
these factors, physicians have developed
guidelines to limit antibiotic use for ear
infections so they are given only when they are
most needed. In the majority of cases, treating
an ear infection with acetaminophen or ibuprofen
treats the symptoms of ear infections while the
child’s body cures the infection.
Based on this
example, it’s clear that getting a prescription
for an antibiotic to treat an ear infection
isn’t always the best treatment, even though it
seems like it might be.
It also shows
that getting high-quality health care depends on
striking a balance in the tests and medicines
that you receive. Specifically, this means that
the services you receive should:
underuse (not receiving screenings that all
adults should get, like for high blood
overuse (getting tests that you don’t need
or that may cause you harm).
misuse (making sure that prescribed
medications don’t have dangerous
You might wonder
how you, as one individual, can ensure that you
and your family receive high-quality health
care. After all, many of the experiences we have
with hospitals and the health care system come
at a time when we are most worried about our
health or the health of our loved ones.
Questions about the quality of the services
we’re about to receive are generally not what we
are concerned about at that moment.
To help you in
these situations, the Agency for Healthcare
Research and Quality (AHRQ) has developed a tool
to help you know what questions to ask the next
time you visit your doctor, pharmacy, or
For example, if
you are scheduled to undergo a medical test,
here are some of the questions you might ask:
- What is the
- How is the
- What are the
benefits and risks of having this test?
- When will I
get the results?
- What will
the results tell me?
Check our Web
for more information on how to build your own
list of questions for your next medical
We have come a
long way in understanding what health care
quality isand what it isn’t. Asking questions
the next time you visit your doctor, pharmacy,
or hospital is an important way to help ensure
that you and your family receive high-quality
I’m Dr. Carolyn
Clancy, and that’s my advice on how to navigate
the health care system.
Guide to Health Quality: How to Know It When
You See It
Site: Question Builder
Create a personalized list of questions for
your next visit with your health care clinician
Listen to an overview of what health care
quality is and what you can do to get better
care from your doctor.
Current as of October 2007
Recognizing High-Quality Health Care.
Navigating the Health Care System: Advice
Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy, October 16,
2007. Agency for Healthcare Research and
Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/cc/cc101607.htm