When a panel of leading medical experts concluded this spring that patients were receiving too many medical tests – often to their detriment – it was another reminder of the fallibility of the medical profession and a wake-up call that we all need to take charge of our own health. "Doctors don't know everything," says Dr. Emily Rubenstein Engel, a physician at San Diego's Scripps Clinics.
The age of the family doctor is over. There was a time when physicians had only a handful of patients, rarely farmed them out to specialists, and didn't make decisions influenced by pharmaceutical incentives, insurance policies, or the constant threat of malpractice suits. These days, managing your own health care is largely up to you – no matter how eminent your physician or how much you're paying. More doctors are specialists, reluctant to diagnose or treat beyond their field, and are overbooked and overwhelmed by patient quota, hospital demands, and insurance-company red tape.
You have to be your own health advocate – to ensure that you see the best physicians, get enough time with them, ask the right questions, and are given the right drugs and tests, so that you can make lifestyle changes to treat and prevent problems. "Optimizing your health is not something you do at your doctor's office – it's something you do with yourself every day," says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, an integrative physician and national authority on men's health issues. "You learn about your health, you learn about medicine, you learn about medical tests, and you become your own damn expert."
Here are a few hard and fast rules to help you take control of your health care. Launch Gallery >>
Illustration by Bryan Christie Design
Don't be intimidated.
"Doctors are consultants, not your boss," says Teitelbaum. But speaking up to doctors can be difficult to do, even for patients who are expert communicators in their professions. Education level is no hedge against intimidation and embarrassment, says Dr. Robert Mordkin, chief of urology at Virginia Hospital Center near Washington, D.C. "Some guys come in, and they're so ashamed to say the word "testicle." You need to set that aside so you can advocate for your own health." He suggests writing down your questions ahead of time so you can focus better on what you need to say and what the doctor is telling you.
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