Don’t Understand? ASK Your Doctor

Sept. 23, 2021

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We all know information helps us make smarter decisions. After all, when was the last time you bought something without checking online reviews first? The same is true about your health care. A complete understanding of the situation will help you decide whether to have certain tests, treatments or procedures. 

But in the moment, when you’re talking to your doctor, it can be hard to speak up or find the right words. That’s where Always Stay Knowledgeable (ASK) comes in. This program from BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina seeks to raise awareness about the importance of conversations between patients and providers.

Each patient brings a unique set of factors that inform his or her health care decisions. What’s right for your friend or family member might not make sense for you. Treatments or tests you don’t really need can waste your time and money and cause unnecessary stress. In some cases, they can potentially cause some degree of harm, such as through radiation exposure from X-rays or CT scans. 

Experts estimate up to 30 percent of care is either redundant or unnecessary and might not improve patients’ health. Dr. Lloyd Kapp, a medical director in the BlueCross Healthcare Innovation and Improvement department, said ASK is working to improve that number. Its goal is to help make sure health care facilities and providers are using their resources for high-value, evidence-based care that makes a real difference.

ASK is based on the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation’s Choosing Wisely program. The ABIM Foundation asked specialty medical groups for examples of treatments in their fields that could be unnecessary. Based on their responses, the campaign identified more than 500 tests and procedures across more than 80 medical specialties. 

One example of a potentially unnecessary test, Kapp said, is a vitamin D deficiency screening. A test takes time and money and can cause stress for the patient. In many cases, if their doctor suspects a deficiency, patients are better off simply taking a vitamin D supplement.

Other examples include:

  • Abdominal CT scans in the emergency room
  • Head imaging in the emergency room
  • Imaging for lower-back pain
  • Preoperative screenings for low-risk surgeries for patients with no risk factors

Exceptions apply in each of these cases based on a patient’s unique circumstances, Kapp pointed out. 

Doctors want to help their patients make the best possible health care decisions. Even more importantly, they want to help their patients fully understand the reasons behind those decisions. 

“We want to encourage patients to talk with their doctors,” Kapp said. “We want to make sure they understand the impact on their care, the reason for it and how much it’s going to cost to make sure they’re getting appropriate care.”

If you don’t know how to start a conversation with your care provider, start with these five questions:

  • Do I really need this test or procedure?
  • What are the risks and side effects?
  • Are there simpler, safer options?
  • What happens if I don’t do anything?
  • How much does it cost, and will my insurance pay for it?

Remember: You can be your own health care advocate. It’s easy — just ASK.

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