December 03, 2014 — Blog Post
A Need for Health Care 101
Our health care system is complicated. So why don’t we have a way of helping people understand how it works before they find themselves in the hot seat? Instead of trial by fire, wouldn’t it be helpful to have some form of Health Care 101?
If we’re fortunate, we’re blissfully unaware of how the medical system works as we’re growing up. When you get sick, a parent whisks you away to the pediatrician and your only concern is whether to accept the lollipop from the stranger in the white coat. If your luck continues as a young adult, you bump into the health care system rarely, if at all, perhaps relying on Mom’s suggestions or the student health service a few blocks away.
But at some point you find yourself selecting health insurance, choosing a doctor, and making appointments. Maybe you have to help a loved one navigate the system. Or you get sick, injured, or develop a chronic illness. Whatever the reason, many of us are unprepared when circumstances push us into health care’s deep end, and we don’t have a coach to show us how to swim.
Stumbling into a foreign world
When I had to choose insurance the first time, I didn’t understand the lingo, and I didn’t know who to ask. It was kind of like how I didn’t know what a car’s transmission was — even though everyone else in the adult world seemed to know. (To be fair, I didn’t buy my first car until I was 25. But if I’m being honest, years have passed and I still don’t know.)
Lingo is a barrier, but at least we’ve got Google. What if you don’t even know who’s who in health care? It took me years to learn that a gynecologist can double as your primary care physician. And how would anyone know an internal medicine doctor can treat problems in the eyes, ears, and skin (which aren’t “inside” the body)?
Young adults might find themselves moving or switching jobs every couple years, which means finding a new doctor — for many, that’s little more than a shot in the dark. To be a savvy patient, you also need to maintain a list of your medications, articulate your symptoms, and keep your medical records organized (and for that matter, you need to realize that’s your job in the first place).
In other words, there’s a long list of skills and knowledge we need, but we’re left to learn it by high-stakes trial and error.
How can you get answers?
Even though you might feel uncomfortable, it’s completely OK to simply ask around. Your health care team, of course, is one place to turn. In fact, they’ve even been in your shoes as patients and caregivers. If you have insurance through your workplace, set up time with your human resources manager for an overview of health insurance and your options.
There are websites that can help you be more informed, too. One of my favorites is Be a Prepared Patient® , which covers a number of topics such as deciding when to seek care, getting health insurance, and paying for prescription medications. On our blog, Engaging the Patient, you’ll find a primer on understanding health care costs written by Jeanne Pinder and Casey Quinlan. And Consumer Reports offers guidance on saving money on drugs, along with information on shopping for insurance and choosing a hospital.
For more on health insurance, Healthcare.gov has information geared towards young adults seeking coverage for the first time. And the Kaiser Family Foundation explains health insurance with a clever, easy-to-understand video.
It would be great to have more user-friendly resources at our fingertips, perhaps geared to young adults in particular. But no matter your age or health care experience, it helps to know you’re not the only one with questions, and it’s smart to get answers squared away before you need them.
What questions about our medical system have you felt embarrassed to ask, or are you still confused about? And what people or resources have you turned to for answers?