Treating Seniors: Risks vs. Benefits

While informed consent policies require health care professionals to make sure that patients or those who are acting on their behalf are comfortable with the suggested course of care. Making medical decisions is a challenging process that entails a thorough assessment of the risks and benefits of treatment.  With informed consent, the burden increasingly falls on patients and their caregivers to ask the right questions to understand their options.

Cultivating open communication with medical professionals is important to avoid unnecessary health care, its risks, benefits and costs. Doctors may not be forthcoming with complete information about a treatment plan without understanding the individual patient’s goals and concerns.  Perhaps the best way to avoid unnecessary medical treatment is to engage in a frank conversation with the doctor. Ask questions, challenge assumptions and do not be anxious about seeking a second opinion.

Questions to Ask

Competent professionals are always open to straightforward communication.  Those who feel challenged or defensive when questioned may not be the right match for a patient or caregiver in whom they are placing their trust. When a procedure or medication is proposed here are a few questions you may want to ask to gain a fuller understanding of the procedure/prescription and what alternatives you or your loved-one have in the situation.

Why?  Encourage the doctor to describe the logic behind his or her decision to put your mind at ease about the validity of the suggestion.  It is important to understand the rationale behind ordering a specific test, procedure or drug.

Alternatives?  Often there are other ways to treat an ailment, conduct a diagnostic test or perform a surgery.  By asking about alternatives, you will have the opportunity to make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

Next?  The question really is once you have the results of the test, what would we do?  Suppose the results of the test like a colonoscopy suggest treatment.  Would the overall condition of the patient be helped or harmed by any follow-on action like surgery or chemotherapy? Could the treatment be too harsh for the patient given his or her age and condition? In such a case would doing the test would cause unnecessary discomfort or expense with no real benefit, or possible harm?

Risks?  Every medical procedure involves some level of risk. Fully understanding the possible complications and the probability of them having a negative impact on a senior’s health is essential to making an informed decision about a test or procedure.

Refusal?  This is really the other side of the risks question. What are the risks of not pursuing the treatment plan?  Ask about the short- and long-term impact of not performing the procedure, test or surgery.

The days of blindly following “doctors orders” are behind us. And, thankfully, most doctors have accepted this new reality and are happy to work with patients in a consultative way.  Use the power given to you to make the best decisions for yourself or those for whom you care.

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