Empowered Patient, a regular feature from CNN Medical News correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.
Keeping personal health info in your wallet can make paramedics' job much easier in an emergency.
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- For 33 years, the routine in the emergency room was the same.
Patients would come in unconscious and unaccompanied.
Donna Mason and her fellow ER nurses would look in their wallets, hoping for information -- something that would tell them what medications they were taking, what health conditions they had, or at the very least a phone number for next of kin.
No information often meant the person suffered.
She remembers patients who had contact lenses, but because no one at the hospital knew, the contacts stayed on for days and the patients ended up with scratched corneas. She remembers a patient who was given blood thinners in the ER. No one knew he was already taking Vitamin K, which can have terrible interactions with blood thinners. The patient ended up in the intensive care unit.
"We don't have a magic wand. We can't see everything," says Mason, the immediate past president of the Emergency Nurses Association. "When we do have the right information, it saves lives. I've seen it happen over and over again."
So what information should you carry with you?
Mason and the National Institute on Aging recommend:
• A list of your medical problems
• A list of your medications (including herbs and supplements)
• Name and phone number of your doctor
• Name and phone number of family or close friends
• Whether you wear contact lenses
How would an ER find it?
You need to make it easy for ER staff to find your information. Mason jokes that short of tattooing it on your forehead, the best approach is to write your health information on a card you keep right behind your driver's license in your wallet.
Why near your driver's license? "When the paramedics arrive to help you, they grab a wallet or a purse so they'll know who you are," she says. "They do it consistently." Mason says when patients arrive in the emergency room, nurses routinely look for their driver's license to locate next of kin.
She says many emergency rooms have cards where you can fill in the blanks with your health information.
How about when it's not an emergency?
Keeping a personal health record is important even when you're not in an emergency situation, according to the American Health Information Management Association.
The group recommends keeping a more detailed personal health record that would include all the information you'd need in an emergency plus more, such as dates of past surgeries, results of diagnostic tests and clinical notes from doctors' visits.
This information can come in handy when you visit a doctor who may not be aware of tests performed and diagnoses made by other doctors. "Most of the time we don't always remember everything we need to tell our doctor," says Jill Burrington-Brown, spokesperson for AHIMA. "This way, you can just hand them this information."
Several organizations offer ways to organize and store a personal health record either on paper or on the Web. Click here for AHIMA's free forms you can print and fill out.
The personal health record of the future
Burrington-Brown carries her personal health record on a USB flash drive, hoping that in the future emergency departments will learn to look there for information. Mason says in her dream world, everyone would have the information embedded in a bar code on his or her driver's license, and the emergency departments would have a bar code reader.
But in the meantime, a simple piece of paper in your wallet might be the difference between life and death. E-mail to a friend
Elizabeth Cohen is a correspondent for CNN Medical News. Senior producer Jennifer Pifer contributed to this report.