Every day, you make dozens of decisions about your health that can impact your well-being, such as whether to tough out the flu or see the doctor, go for a power walk after work or watch TV instead, take a headache medicine or skip it.
You do the best you can, but let’s face it: You’re juggling your own responsibilities along with your kid’s health, school stuff, home life and sports activities. And your partner and your parents are probably in the mix, too. With so much going on, it’s easy to get distracted and make micro and macro judgment calls about your own health care that can do more harm than good.
Where do you go wrong? Here are some of the biggest medical mistakes multitasking women make that doctors wish they wouldn’t and what to do to remedy the situation.
Medical mistake: You have an ob-gyn but not a primary care doctor.
If you have a gynecologist but not a primary care physician, it’s time to go doctor shopping.
“Women should have both an ob-gyn and a PCP,” says Dr. Michael Roizen, division chair at the Cleveland Clinic and co-author of “You: the Smart Patient.”
PCPs have a broad-based medical knowledge and training in prevention.
“There are so many nuances in drug therapy and drug interactions that PCPs are expert in,” Roizen says.
If your blood pressure is creeping up, for example, your gynecologist shouldn’t be the one to write a prescription for blood pressure medication. You will also need a PCP to make sure you undergo age-appropriate screening tests. And if you should need a specialist, a PCP is invaluable for coordinating your care.
To-do tactic: To choose a PCP, interview two or three until you find one you’re compatible with. Clues a doctor is right for you: The waiting room has patients similar to your age, and the doctor isn’t near retirement (a sign that she won’t be able to care for you long-term). She’s also up-to-date on what’s likely to happen to you.
Medical mistake: You take your kids to well-child checkups like clockwork, but you haven’t seen a physician in years.
Sure, your kids come first. But you need regular checkups, too, even if you feel fine. If you don’t have your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose tested regularly — preferably every five years if you’re in your 20s and 30s and otherwise healthy, yearly if you’re older — you don’t know if you’re at risk for a major condition such as diabetes, heart attack or stroke.
“Denial can be deadly,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director at the NYU Women’s Heart Program in New York City.
To-do tactic: Stay on top of your own health. Schedule a physical every five years if you’re healthy and under 40 so you know where you are in terms of blood pressure (goal: less than 120/80), total cholesterol (less than 200), LDL or “bad” cholesterol (70 to 160, depending on your heart disease risk), HDL or “good” cholesterol (50 or higher for women), triglycerides (less than 150), fasting blood glucose (less than 100), body mass index (less than 25) and waist circumference (35 inches or less for women). (For more information, see “Numbers That Count for a Healthy Heart.”)
If you’re over 40, or if you’re younger but have a strong family history of cancer, heart disease or diabetes, or have had an abnormal mammogram, a breast biopsy or a history of an abnormal Pap test or ovarian cyst, get a well-adult checkup every year. Depending on your situation, you could start with your internist or your gynecologist. Schedule your annual appointment near a memorable date, such as your birthday, so you don’t forget.
Medical mistake: You forget to get your prescription filled but go to your follow-up appointment anyway.
“It’s a waste of time to go to your follow-up appointment if you haven’t even taken your medication in the first place,” says Dr. Margaret McKenzie, a physician with the Center for Specialized Women’s Health at the Cleveland Clinic.
That’s because the path to getting well is a process that often goes like this: You come in with symptoms; your doctor writes a prescription and you take the medication until your next appointment, at which point, your doctor assesses if the medication is working and whether you’re getting better. If you don’t get your prescription filled, you’ll still be at square one. Your symptoms will linger, your condition could worsen and your doctor won’t have any new information to fine-tune your treatment plan.
To-do tactic: When you get a prescription, get to the pharmacy right away instead of letting it slide.
“Put ‘fill prescription’ at the top of your to-do list,” says McKenzie, who takes her own advice. “I write everything down. If it isn’t written down, it isn’t happening.”
Then take the medication as directed before going to your follow-up doctor’s visit.
Medical mistake: You pooh-pooh your symptoms or wait until the last minute to mention them.
Symptoms related to incontinence, such as urine leakage, or sexuality, such as pain during intercourse or a decreased sex drive, are big topics that patients often fail to bring up during medical appointments unless the doctor asks.
“Or they’ll mention these or other symptoms as they’re walking out the door of my office and then a whole new visit starts,” says McKenzie.
Embarrassment is part of it, but again, so is just being busy.
“Women are multitasking so much that in the whirlwind of just getting to my office, they forget about their symptoms,” she says.
To-do tactic: To make the most of your next doctor’s visit, prepare by making a list of troublesome symptoms and bring them up yourself, no matter how embarrassing or minor you think they are. If you’re uncomfortable mentioning them, practice saying them out loud at home or in the car on the drive over, as in “I feel pain when I pee,” “I leak when I laugh” or “My periods last forever.” When the doctor asks the reason for your visit, put it out there so you don’t miss an opportunity to get treatment.
Medical mistake: You don’t hear back about test results so you just assume they’re normal.
No news isn’t necessarily good news. Doctors are especially pressed for time these days, so things can fall through the cracks.
To-do tactic: Don’t let your doctor drop the ball. If you don’t hear from your doctor’s office after you’ve taken medical tests, it’s your responsibility to call the doctor or the doctor’s nurse to follow up.
“Just like in school, you’ve taken the test, so you deserve to get the grade to see how well you’ve done,” says Dawn Calderon, a cardiologist and director of the Women’s Wellness Program at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in New Jersey.
What’s a reasonable length of time to wait? For a Pap test, allow a month of turnover for lab results. For blood tests and X-rays, give it three days before dialing your doctor or your doctor’s nurse.
“You’re not bugging the doctor,” says McKenzie. “You’re helping her to stay on task and on time. Health care is a partnership.”