Those of us of a certain age will remember a radio (and later television show) called Dragnet, where the hard-boiled detective Joe Friday would tell witnesses to alleged crimes, “All we want are the facts, ma’am…” The detective, played by Jack Webb, was often short on time and full of questions, so he needed to get to the point.

When you as a patient need to go to the emergency room, and time counts, the doctors and nurses need “just the facts” to get a rapid and accurate assessment of your medical history and condition. Recently, a financial services adviser I know wanted to make a service available for his clients. The service would provide essential medical information in just such a scenario so that medical personnel can quickly assess what’s important in one’s medical history. I thought that was a great idea.

In light of that, I’d like to share with my readers the kind of information you need to share quickly and accurately, whether on a 5″ x 8″ card, a piece of paper or some electronic device, in case of a medical emergency.

Roughly, the information falls into five basic categories: drug and food allergies, medication list, ongoing medical conditions, prior surgeries and medical directives. Most are self-explanatory, but let’s talk about each.

  • Drug and food allergies (and sensitivities) are essential to communicate to medical people. An allergy is where you get a true anaphylactic reaction to a drug or food—where you may break out in hives, you have difficulty breathing and your windpipe swells. This is not to be confused with a sensitivity or adverse reaction, where an antibiotic might cause stomach upset. Also, food allergies, such as to shellfish, are important to know about because some intravenous contrast dyes might cause an anaphylactic reaction when given to such patients.
  • Your medication list is an important part of your medical history. You should include all prescriptions, over-the-counter medications and supplements on this list. This ensures that medical folks know what you are taking and what drug choices to make when treating you while you are under their care. It’s also helpful to reduce the incidence of adverse drug interactions or overdose.
  • Medical conditions. The importance of divulging your ongoing medical conditions is self-explanatory. Doctors and nurses need to know your major medical conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, thyroid problems, cancers, autoimmune diseases and the like. Use common sense when compiling this list; it’s not essential that personnel know you once had poison ivy or an ear infection years ago.
  • Prior surgeries. Again, use common sense. The fact that you had your appendix out is very important if you have abdominal pain. The fact that you had a small non-cancerous skin lesion removed 10 years ago is not important. When in doubt, ask your doctor what to put down on your list.
  • Medical directives. Finally, your directives regarding your “code” status (relating to heroic, life-saving measures), your religious preferences (e.g., Jehovah’s witnesses do not accept blood transfusions), whether you have a living will, your organ donor status, and the contact numbers for your primary doctor, family and friends who are responsible for you go a long way in reducing ambiguity and confusion.

So be smart and take time to fill out these items. Carry it with you…give copies to key loved ones…and remember to review it periodically for updates. That way, when you are asked to present “just the facts,” you’ll be ready.

For more with Dr. Sherer, click here for his podcast and video interviews, or purchase his memoir, The House of Black and White: My Life with and Search for Louise Johnson Morris.

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