As a practicing primary care doctor, I’ve noticed over the years how individuals are increasingly uneasy about the medical care they receive. It’s no longer about the doctor-patient relationship, but more about customers wanting a service. Patients want to get better and don’t want to spend more than they have to. They are inundated with advertisements about prescription medications and encouraged to ask their doctor for them. Doctor television shows highlight the multiple hi-tech machines at our fingertips like MRIs and CT scanners, which can seemingly get to the truth about a person’s ailments. As a consequence, they begin to believe the increasing perception that the more medications, tests, and imaging the better.
If it were only that simple! Prescription medications are not to be used like the consumer goods toothpaste or sodas. They are meant for only those who truly need them. Pictures and images from CT and MRI scanners only tell part of the story, not the whole story. Our hi-tech devices are not any better or any worse at getting to the truth than you can get to at gazing at the Mona Lisa painting and trying to determine the reason for her smile. Would nausea that would explain that enigmatic expression? What did she have for lunch? Did she like Leonardo, or didn’t she? Like a painting, a picture from an MRI only tells part of the story.
The real secrets to saving money and staying healthy for you and your children are to:
* Educate yourself to do the boring preventive things like exercise, quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet, get screened for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
* Learn when you must seek medical care and when you can safely skip.
* Find a doctor who listens and thinks critically about your symptoms and problems and who thoughtfully determines when medications, tests, and referrals are necessary and when they are not needed. (Allergists are specialists at listening and taking histories, among other things.)
There is a reason Benjamin Franklin’s phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” still holds true today. It is because it still works.
Maintain a healthy weight, exercise, and control blood pressure and cholesterol (if necessary with medication) to decrease your risk of a heart attack. (You’ll avoid the radiation from a CT heart scanner or open-heart surgery and the subsequent recovery).
Make your home and work environment allergen free so that your children’s allergies and asthma don’t flare-up. Get vaccinated. (You’ll avoid doctor visits, emergency room visits, and time off work all of which cost time, yours, as well as money.)
Get screened for breast cancer and colon cancer when at the appropriate age, even if you feel well. When detected early, the problem can be addressed before it cuts your life short prematurely. (You’ll avoid having painful weeks, months, or years of very expensive chemotherapy and a quality of life that increasingly goes downhill).
Educate yourself. Ask questions. Find doctors who listen to you rather than automatically prescribe medications, tests, or x-rays every time you see them.
If that’s too much to do, then you can learn the same secrets another way.
Go to med school and get your own degree.
Davis Liu, M.D., is a practicing board-certified family physician with the Permanente Medical Group in Northern California since 2000. His comments have appeared in Fortune, Smart Money, Remedy, Real and Simple, and the NY Times. He has penned opinion pieces that have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.
His book Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely can be purchased here.