This is the first of three posts on creating a partnership with your doctor(or doctors).
This post focuses on how often to see your doctor.
The second post will be about how to communicate better with your doctor, while the third post digs into recognizing your doctor’s ability(or inability) to work with you.
I always focus on seeing any doctor who works with me, rather than on me.
I’m sharing this information with you so that you, too, can make sure that you are working with your doctor, rather than hoping that your doctor can help you.
I grew up knowing that while it’s the doctor’s job to diagnose and treat me, it’s my job to know when and if I need to go see the doctor, and it’s my job to take care of myself before and after my appointments.
Knowing when to see the doctor
To be a good partner with your doctor, you, as a patient, need to be able to determine if this particular situation requires a doctor’s care.
For example, most colds and flus don’t mean you need to go to your doctor. They can run their course and are mostly caused by viruses, which doctors can’t do much to fix.
So, in most cases, going in to see the doctor when you first get the sniffles doesn’t make sense, and the only things accomplished by it are you increasing the chance of giving your virus to other people and tiring yourself by making an unnecessary effort.
On the other hand, if you’ve been sick for over a week and don’t seem to be getting better, or have a very high fever, it is time to reach out and see your doctor.
Knowing if and when you need to go to see a doctor is an important skill and one that you can develop over time.
What to do if you go too early or often
I freely admit that I don’t always judge this correctly myself, as I sometimes go in to see the doctor too early in illness for them to be able to help.
My instinct is that if I’m feeling bad in a definable way, I am better off going in to see a medical professional.
One of the biggest problems with this overeagerness to get treatment is that I sometimes end up going to see the doctor two or three times for the same illness since the first time around I came in too early for them to even know if they needed to help.
Another major problem with going in too soon is that it often increases your likelihood of being prescribed medications, especially antibiotics, that you don’t need.
I focus on recognizing when I’m likely dealing with a minor virus, and when things have reached a point where I need medical intervention.
For me, that is related to the length of time I’m sick, and if I have a period where I feel better, then worse(often that’s a virus dying out, then a bacterial infection starting).
For whatever reason, I seem to get bacterial infections really easily, so very often a mild virus turns into a more severe infection that requires antibiotics to treat it.
What if you don’t go to the doctor often enough?
There are also people, like my partner, Al, who are very opposed and resistant to seeing a doctor.
Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s based on experience, often it’s a combination of things.
For Al, growing up, going to the doctor’s office translated into a family expense that was often going to break the budget.
Doctor’s appointments weren’t a regular thing, and if you got sick, you stayed home and rested unless you reached a point where it seemed life-threatening (at which point you might go to the hospital).
This method might reduce the number of appointments, but emergency room trips are much more expensive than regular doctors appointments, and will often require more extreme support than if you go to the doctors when it first appears that you have more than a virus.
While I intellectually understand that money concerns and bad experiences can lead you to think that waiting and hoping is a necessary part of the treatment process, it’s hard for me to fully wrap my mind around it.
There are times when seeing the doctor can greatly improve your quality of life, and protect you from a lot of pain and suffering and expenses in the future.
Building a sense of when to go in to see the doctor can really help you make that distinction.
Minimum requirement: annual wellness visits
In my mind, you must see a doctor at least once a year for a wellness visit.
That annual visit lets you and your doctor develop a connection and sense of trust, and, more importantly, lets you and your doctor get a sense of your overall health, and do preventative treatments and early testing to see if you have any symptoms or signs of any major health problem.
If your doctor sees signs of thyroid problems, or cancer, or increased risk of heart disease, that once-a-year commitment means that the problem is more likely to be spotted early when treatment is easier and less expensive, and your day-to-day quality of life is less impacted.
For example, if your doctor finds early signs of a risk of heart disease, you can make relatively minor adjustments to your diet(like using olive oil instead of less-healthy options, decreasing your consumption of fatty, fried foods, and adding more vegetables and fruit to your diet.)
If you don’t see the doctor until the damage is more severe, you may need to go much more extreme to get similar results, such as cutting out all salt, or only eating whole grain foods and extremely limiting your meats.
In the worst cases, you may even need surgery to save your life, when simple lifestyle changes earlier might have prevented that need.
For most conditions, knowing early means that you have more time to adjust your habits, and your adjustments can be less extreme, with a lower cost to a slip-up in your self-care.
If you are managing a disabling condition, you likely will have a larger amount of doctor’s appointments, and they may all be necessary. If you don’t know what’s wrong, it’s important to keep seeing folks until you are able to get diagnosed properly.
Conclusion: Know when to see your doctor!
Your doctor can’t help you if you don’t see them, so it’s important to develop the skill of knowing when you need to see your doctor: recognize your own tendencies and do your best to temper them.
If you tend to go to the doctor more often than needed, pause before you make that appointment and double-check with yourself if you’re going in too soon, or if you’re at the point where you really need to be seen.
If, on the other hand, you’re used to avoiding or minimizing medical appointments, if you have the feeling that maybe you should go to the doctor, you probably should make an appointment now. If you don’t see your doctor, they can’t help you, so please think carefully and make sure that you are going in when you need to.
In order to have a healthy relationship with your doctor, it’s vital that you learn when to see them.