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
There are no magic bullets.
Health problems rarely have a single cause – or a single solution. Most conditions arise from a multitude of factors, including diet, stress level, exercise habits, the supplements you take (or don't take), relationship problems, and more. Your doctor should take these into consideration and address how you can change your lifestyle to improve your health.
Remember, the profit motive is as strong in many doctors' offices as it is in a mechanic's garage. Physicians make money by ordering tests; some even get kickbacks from drug companies. Whenever a doctor prescribes you a drug or a test, especially without offering alternatives first, ask him why he's ordering it, if it's really necessary, and whether there are alternative medical treatments like acupuncture or supplements that are worth trying before undergoing testing or treatment. "If you don't like what you hear," says Teitelbaum, "tell him you want a second opinion." Mordkin agrees: "We are all adults and want what's best for the patient."
When to Get a Second Opinion
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