Last week, I paralleled the experience of a cancer patient navigating the healthcare system with that of the many passageways and blind alleys of a labyrinth. This week I’ll continue the discussion with the next 5 points in the journey where cancer patients get lost.
6. Procedures: The doctor orders a diagnostic test or procedure such as a biopsy. Many cancer patients are confused and don’t understand why they need to get the test and never follow through. Some patients go for the test but never follow-up on the results with their doctor, assuming that the doctor will track them down. Many patients are confused about how to prepare for particular tests. Do they need to fast? Can they take their prescription medications? Do they need anesthesia? Do they need to go to the doctor’s office, the hospital, or some special facility for the test? Clearly more can be done to make this a simpler process. Providing patients with written instructions that are enhanced with illustrations or rationally designed pictographs may improve patient comprehension and compliance.
7. Hospital: The average cancer patient may see dozens of doctors, residents, nurses, technicians, fellows, and staff (such as social workers and discharge planners) during a hospital stay for a surgical procedure. Each professional is a source of care and/or information. Sometimes patients may get conflicting information about their prognosis and next steps from different providers and people. Things get even more confusing upon discharge. Most cancer patients do not understand what their next steps are upon leaving the hospital. Who are they supposed to make a follow up appointment with and for what? When does that need to be scheduled? Who do they call with questions? What happens if they are in pain or experiencing complications? What prescriptions do I need to take? Who prescribed them and for what? Having clear discharge instructions is of essence for cancer patients leaving the hospital to ensure patient compliance as well as to improve overall patient satisfaction. Patients, do NOT leave the hospital until you are crystal clear about your next steps.
8. Insurance companies: In general, very few people understand the fundamentals of their insurance plan. Yet, people are shelling out thousands of dollars annually for a plan they know little to nothing about. Patients don’t understand what their plan does and does NOT cover. When faced with a cancer diagnosis, many patients are shocked when the harsh reality sets in that having coverage does not guarantee being full covered. Dealing with insurance companies is not for the easily deterred. Insurance companies are well known for repeatedly denying claims, delaying decisions, processing errors, non-transparency, and confusing their policyholders with insurance-speak. Have a question? Great. Just call the member services number on the back of your insurance card, muddle through the automated menu, pray you’ve selected the right menu option, stay on hold for what seems to be a small eternity to speak to the next available representative, then brace yourself to be endlessly transferred, placed on hold, and eventually either disconnected or told to call your providers billing office. Back to square 1, only more confused and frustrated.
9. Bills: Cancer patients struggle with massive medical expenses and bills. Having health insurance doesn’t necessarily guarantee full coverage and eventually balances owed start piling up. While treatments and medical care are expensive, patients need to scrutinize each and every bill that they receive as medical billing errors run rampant in the industry. It has been reported that as high as 80% of all medical billing is incorrectly processed and contains some type of billing error. Patients, request itemized bills from your doctors and hospitals and get out your magnifying glass. Double check any questionable charges with billing departments prior to paying any balances.
10. Automated phone systems: Automated phone systems reduce the likeliness of callers getting a busy signal or being put on hold for extended periods of time due to the routing of other calls. With private practices and hospitals merging into larger facilities, menus of their respective automated phone systems are becoming longer with more and more options to select from. The number of prompts it takes to leave a message for their oncologist may overwhelm patients calling their cancer center. Some patients simply get confused and select the wrong menu option. I’ve been there. You have my sympathy because now you need to hang up and start all over. Even in cases when patients follow the prompts correctly, they may be connected to a voicemail instead of an actual person. Physicians, have you tried calling your own office and navigating your automated phone system? If you haven’t done so already, make sure you make it a priority.
Navigating the healthcare system and its many uncertain passageways and blind alleys during a cancer diagnosis may become easily overwhelming and difficult. Hiring a private cancer patient advocate will arm you with the expertise and support you need to circumvent the unknown in your journey. You will be relieved of tedious and frustrating tasks so you may focus on what matters most: your peace of mind, recovery, and overall well-being.