Care is a broad term that in terms of health and wellness refers to any examination, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, and support provided by professionals to patients. Care can mean anything from diagnosing and prescribing medication at an urgent care clinic for a child with digestive upset to home support and nursing for an elderly patient with dementia. Care may be physical, medical, or psychological, and can take place in a variety of settings.

It is important for individuals—and those caring for people who are unable to make decisions—to understand what care is, the different types, and what to expect. Care can be coordinated through several different professionals, and care needs change with time for many patients. No matter what the type of care, the setting, or the patient being cared for, there are standards of care that must be met, and repercussions for professionals who do not meet those standards.

Understanding Care Needs

Medical and other types of care can be confusing. Without being a professional in the health or medical industry, it can be difficult to understand care, the types of care available, and what an individual needs to be well or to be comfortable. Before accessing any kind of care, it is important to outline your needs, or the needs of a loved one for whom you are making decisions. This will help you make better choices about care.

For example, if you have knee pain, there are multiple options for care, including physical therapy and surgery. To understand your choice, carefully consider your needs. Do you need to be able to be active again, to play sports or run, or do you simply need to have less knee pain or greater mobility? Your needs will determine the care you select. For an elderly parent, you may have to choose between in-home care and assisted living. Think about the kind of care your parent needs. Does she need someone 24 hours a day, to perform even basic hygiene tasks or does she just need someone to do chores and help her with her medicines?

Types of Care

There are many different types of care offered by a variety of professionals. The type of care sought depends on the needs of an individual. Many people will take advantage of multiple types of care throughout their lives as their needs change. A few examples of the many types of care available to individuals:

  • Short-term care. This is care for acute conditions, like a broken bone.
  • Long-term care. Long-term care is needed for chronic or recurring conditions, like addiction or diabetes.
  • Emergency care. Emergency medicine is needed for crisis situations, such as when someone is having a heart attack or is suicidal.
  • Urgent care. When the need is urgent but not an emergency, care can be sought at an urgent care setting.
  • Primary care. A primary care doctor provides general health care and preventative medicine.
  • Specialty care. Primary care doctors may refer patients to a specialist for things like cancer or allergies.
  • Hospice care. A hospice provides comfort and palliative care for terminal patients.
  • Mental health care. Professionals that include psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed therapists provide care for mental illnesses, like depression or schizophrenia.
  • In-home care. Care in the home may be provided for an elderly or disabled individual who needs some extra care or assistance.
  • Assisted living or residential care. An individual may seek temporary or permanent care in a residential facility as needed. Elderly people in assisted living facilities get support and medical care. Patients with severe mental illness or addictive disorders can also benefit from residential care.
  • Physical therapy. Trained physical therapists help patients with pain and mobility after injuries, surgeries, or because of certain conditions, like cerebral palsy.

Care Coordination

Getting the best care and the most appropriate care often depends on coordinating that care between multiple people. Care coordination can be complicated and requires organization and communication. Coordinating care may present challenges, but it is important because good coordination improves the effectiveness of care and keeps patients safe. Tragic mistakes can be made when care is not coordinated and care providers do not communicate with each other.

Coordination involves not just the professionals involved in providing care, but also the patient and sometimes the patient’s family. To have good care coordination, a patient’s needs, questions, and preferences must be addressed and caregivers must communicate with each other and with the patient.

Obstacles to coordinating care are numerous in the American health care system. Health care is often disjointed with different strategies used by various caregivers and medical centers. Referrals can also be confusing for patients, especially when caregivers do not take the time to explain the reason for referral or for adding an additional caregiver to the team.

Care Transitions

Another obstacle in getting good care comes in the form of transitions. Many people need different types of care and the services of different caregivers. Making those transitions from one to another may open the door for mistakes to be made that may harm the patient or prevent the patient from getting the best care. One facility may use different operational procedures and information that is crucial to patient safety can get lost during the transition. Mistakes, like errors in medication given, can be costly and also dangerous.

Quality and Standards of Care

No matter what type of care you receive, you have a reasonable expectation of quality care from professionals. These health professionals are supposed to be trained appropriately and to be able to provide services and care that meet certain basic standards. A basic standard of care may refer to general quality of care but also to very specific situations. For instance, there are standards of care that are used for certain illnesses or injuries that doctors are expected to follow for the best patient outcomes. An example is using medications and encouraging lifestyle changes for patients with diabetes, rather than only providing a prescription.

Medical standard of care is also a legal term that refers to the level and quality of care that a patient can expect to receive from a caregiver. If that standard is not met and the patient is harmed in some way, medical standard of care may be cited in a malpractice case. Violations of standard of care may include misdiagnosing an illness, treating an illness inappropriately, providing the wrong medication, and many other situations. Caregivers of all types are obligated to provide quality care, and when they do not, patients have legal options.

Understanding care is important for everyone because at some point in time all people need care. Whether you need care for yourself or for a loved one who is not fully independent, you expect to get care that is of high quality and that provides you with at least the basic standards. The more you understand about care, the more empowered you will be to make the right choices about care and to take action if you do not get the care you expect.