To Err Is Human, Which Is Why We Worry Even More About Healthcare

If Americans don’t have ulcers from worrying about healthcare, it’s not for lack of effort. Even when satisfied with their current health plan—as a majority of people consistently are—they fret about the condition of healthcare in the nation and about the prospect of losing their coverage. And now, public concern about medical errors is adding to the stew of anxieties.

In a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 48 percent of adults said they’re worried about the safety of the medical care they and their families receive. This includes 22 percent who said they’re “very worried.” Are these worriers merely reacting to media coverage of the subject? Unlikely, given another of the survey’s findings: 34 percent of respondents said they or family members have been victims of medical error; 21 percent said such an error has caused “serious health consequences” to themselves or a relative, including death (cited by 8 percent), long-term disability (11 percent) or severe pain (16 percent).

In the five years since an Institute of Medicine report drew attention to the magnitude of the problem, some consumers have become more diligent in researching their healthcare options. Thus, 35 percent of respondents in the current poll said they’d seen information comparing the quality of health plans, hospitals or doctors in the past year—up from 27 percent in a 2000 poll. Nineteen percent claimed to have used such data in making decisions about their care, vs. 12 percent in 2000. “More specifically, 14 percent of consumers say they have used quality information to choose health plans, 8 percent to choose hospitals and 6 percent to choose doctors.”

Still, that leaves the majority of Americans relying on more informal sources of advice. Among the most common of these is word-of-mouth from friends and family. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they’d be very likely to “ask friends, family members or co-workers” when looking for information on the quality of a healthcare provider. That matches the number who said they’d “ask their doctor, nurse or other health professional.” Far fewer said they’d “go online to an Internet website that posts quality information” (37 percent), “contact someone at their health plan, or refer to materials provided by the plan” (36 percent) or “contact a state agency” (18 percent). In choosing a surgeon for themselves, 48 percent would pick one who has successfully treated a family member or friend, while 46 percent said they’d prefer a surgeon who has the higher professional rating.