The Rights and Responsibilities of Patients

Being a good patient means more than just sticking your tongue out and saying "ah." As a patient, you should take an active interest in your care and treatment, which includes developing a firm understanding of the rights and responsibilities of patients in general. It also pays to be a proactive patient by understanding your own medical history, keeping detailed records, and vocally advocating for your health care needs. The following is a general overview of the rights and responsibilities of patients, and how to take charge of your own care.

Understand Your Rights as a Patient: The Basics

A combination of state and federal laws protects certain patient rights, although Americans don't have a guaranteed right to health care. Remember, insurance companies have an incentive to keep their expenditures as low as possible, while physicians may be persuaded by deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies to promote a certain medication, even if it's not the best option for you.

The following are just a few of your rights as a patient.

The right to be told about alternative courses of treatment:

Even if your health insurance doesn't cover them or you may not be able to afford them, you always have the right to be informed of your options. If you find that your physician is saying things like "well, there is another option, but you probably can't afford it," put an end to the practice by stating clearly and plainly that you are aware of your right to be told of all possible options whether or not you may be able to pay for them.

The right to refuse consent for any procedure or treatment:

If you refuse consent, you may be asked to read and sign a form indicating that refusal; this would release the physician and/or medical institution from liability related to the lack of consent. Furthermore, care providers may perform life-saving procedures under certain conditions where it's not pratical to obtain consent first.

The right to leave the hospital or care facility against medical advice:

You will likely have to sign a waiver form indicating that you are doing so on your own free will and against the recommendations of your medical providers. Similarily, you may appeal any decision to discharge you sooner than you believe is necessary.

Rights associated with medical or drug trials:

If you are asked to participate in a medical or drug trial, you may ask specific questions regarding the purpose of the trial, the potential risks of the trial, the benefits which you may receive, payments to which you may be entitled, and measures taken to protect your privacy.

The right to have your medical records kept confidential:

Physicians, nurses, hospital staff, and insurance plan administrators often must access potentially sensitive medical information in the course of your treatment. But federal law prohibits this information from being shared with any unauthorized individuals and enforces strict procedures for maintaining its confidentiality.

Be Proactive with Your Medical Care

No one is more concerned about your health care than you are and there's plenty of truth to the saying "an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure." To get quality care and the best outcomes for your health, it's imperative to take control of your health as best as you can.

Make sure you're treated with dignity and respect:

Most medical professionals genuinely care about the well-being of their patients and understand the importance of good "bedside manner." But if your physician tends to treat you more like a machine than a human, or dismisses your concerns out of hand, then you should find another care provider.

If it's not a good fit, find another doctor:

If you don't like the way your physicians treat you, don't trust them, or don't believe they're providing you with the best possible care, you can leave and find another provider.

Take an active interest in your care and treatment:

Ask any question of your physician that you feel is important to you. Do not get hung up on the idea that it's a "stupid" question. If you are curious about it, then you have the right to ask and receive an honest answer.

Be a Knowledgeable and Responsible Patient

It's crucial to become knowledgeable about your own health and any conditions or diseases that you may have. The more you know about your health, the harder it will be for anyone (like an insurance company) to pull the wool over your eyes by telling you that a treatment or medication is inappropriate or unwarranted. The smarter you are about your health, the more powerful you become.

Know where to find reliable health care information online:

While it takes much more training and expertise to become a licensed physician than simply "Googling it," learning about medical conditions or health-related topics from reputable sources can make you a better patient. For instance, learning about proper first aid for a compound fracture can help prevent further damage and ensure a swifter recovery. Likewise, knowing what you ate a few hours before becoming violently ill can help your doctor determine the cause.

But not all online health resources are equally reliable and some can be downright misleading.

Keep careful records of your medical health:

Start a diary that includes information on your general health status and the reactions that you have to any medications prescribed by your physician during the course of an illness. If you have a written record, it will be much easier for you to remember and explain your concerns to your physician at your next meeting.

A diary entry could state something like, "On Monday June 4, after getting home from the hospital, I took the first dosage of the antibiotic and was up with insomnia all night. The same thing happened the next three days in a row. Is this normal? Is it related to the antibiotic?"

You can also use this same idea to make a written list of questions that you have for any regular checkup or physicians' visit. For instance, your list could contain both specific questions, such as "Is my blood pressure higher or lower than my last visit?" to the more abstract such as "What can I do to lower my blood pressure?"

Get prepared before your medical appointment:

If you've seen other physicians or specialists since last seeing your physician, don't assume that they know all about your other treatments. Bring a list of any other physicians or medical providers you've seen. If you have reports, charts, x-rays, or test results from those other providers, bring them with you.

Bring a pad of paper and pen with you to any visit with your physician. Many patients have "selective memories" when it comes to medical care, and they may only remember the good things about their visit. Write down a summary of everything your physician tells you as they're telling it to you. That way, you can review your notes later to refresh your memory about all aspects of your medical health.

Above all, take good care of yourself and follow the advice and recommendations of your physician, while getting a handle on the rights and responsibilities of patients in general. If you have concerns about your medical care provider or believe they may have misdiagnosed you, get a second opinion. Your well-being or your very life could depend upon it.

Questions About the Rights and Responsibilities of Patients? An Attorney Can Help

While so much of your health depends on taking control of your own situation and making smart choices, there are certain legal requirements and procedures pertaining to insurance, how care is procured, and other aspects. If you need legal help with a health care-related matter, consider speaking with an experienced health care attorney today.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified health care attorney to help navigate legal issues around your health care.

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