5 Ways To Become An Expert In Your Health (No MD Required)

Updated: August 14, 2013

Elana Miller

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I'm going to make a point that might be a little controversial.

The point is that it's your job to keep yourself healthy, not you doctor's or hospital's job.

Yes - it's your doctor's job to get a thorough history, make appropriate recommendations, and administer appropriate treatment. Your doctor is a specialist whose opinion and input can help you.

However, your doctor won't be very effective if you're not doing the things you need to be doing to keep yourself healthy.

I became an expert in my health the hard way - 4 years of pre-med courses in college, 4 years of medical school, and 3 years of residency (with 1 more year still to go).

In these years of treating patients, I've noticed something interesting. Some patients take control of their health - they bring their medication list to appointments, ask questions, and come to appointments regularly.

Others don't. They miss appointments, don't follow recommendations, and don't give the doctor an accurate picture of what's going on. The consequence is usually suboptimal health, including treatable medical conditions becoming permanent or chronic.

So what's a responsible health consumer to do?

1. Keep track of your medical record

With healthcare becoming increasingly fragmented, it's more important than ever to keep control of your medical record. Often you'll be scurried around between a primary care doctor and specialists, who don't necessarily have access to each other's records.

This means at a minimum that you should have a list of your medications (current and past), medical conditions and surgeries, and copies of labs and imaging reports. Keep all of this information in a file and bring it with you to appointments, especially if it's your first appointment with a new doctor.

One of the frustrations I come across is when new patients can't tell me any information about themselves. They don't know what medical problems they have, what medications they take, or when they last saw a doctor. "Oh, I think that's in my chart from my last doctor... can't you just get it for me?" If that's how you start off, it's going to be a pretty ineffecient appointment.

2. Keep your doctor informed

Your doctor's ability to come up with a correct diagnosis and treatment plan depends to a large degree on your ability to give him or her a clear story of what the problem is - so make sure to come to your appointments prepared and keep to the point.

For a basic history and physical your doctor will want to know your current symptoms (if you have any), you past medical history, past surgeries and hospitalizations, current and past medications, allergies, and family history of any medical problems.

Come to your appointment ready to give this information as efficiently as possible. This is not the best time to go into long-winded stories about your dog or the cute girl you met at the gym yesterday. Doctor's appointments are already too short. Don't let the time slip away talking about issues that aren't important to you.

3. Eliminate health destroyers under your control

So much of your health depends on your daily habits. Do you eat well? Exercise? Take time for relaxation and stress relief? Or do you sit around on the couch, smoke, drink too much, not get sleep enough, and live in a perpetual state of anxiety?

While your doctor should council you on positive health habits, often they won't. Sometimes they're busy, or they don't have time, or they forget, or maybe they're just lazy (I'll be the first to admit that doctors are imperfect, just like the rest of us).

Don't let your doctor's failure to discuss health habits with you be an excuse to engage in behaviors you know are unhealthy. In this day and age (and especially if you're the savvy type of person who reads Expert Enough), there's no excuse for having a lack of information. The information is out there, ready to be consumed. The basics are:

  • Eat well. You don't need to obsess about going Paleo versus low-fat versus low-carb or whatever. Just eat more good food, and less bad food. More veggies and whole, unprocessed foods, and less of anything that comes in a box with a logo on it.
  • Don't smoke. Please. Just don't do it. If you do, set a quit date, get nicotine patches or gum, get help from friends and family, and call a quit line if you need more guidance.
  • Don't overindulge with intoxicants. I'm no prude, and I don't fault patients who socially drink or indulge in the occasional semi-medical marijuana use (what can I say, I'm in California!). But if you depend on intoxicants to wind down, every day - you need to examine why.
  • Be active. Play sports, go to the gym, run around outside with your kids, go for walks, or whatever else you enjoy. You don't need to be a gladiator, you just need to get out there and do something. Twenty minutes a day of moderate activity, 3 to 4 days a week, is a good place to start.
  • Take time for relaxation. If you don't make relaxation a habit, it's easy to let it slip away from you. Our lives can be hectic, busy, overwhelming, and filled with way too many responsibilities. Find a way to slow down. Try exercise, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, time with friends and family, or whatever else that resonates with you.

4. Educate yourself - but take internet health advice with a grain of salt

I love to see patients educate themselves - and I've learned many things from patients far smarter than I am - but there's a fine line between reading up on health conditions and going to "Dr. Internet" to try to diagnose yourself. A lot of the information out there on the Internet is unreliable or inaccurate, so you have to make sure you're looking at reputable sources.

A good approach is to talk to your doctor about what your health risks are, and then go to reputable resources on the Internet to learn more about them. A few I recommend: Web MD, Up To Date (which has patient information available free, as well as a paid resource that I use all the time), and the Mayo Clinic.

When you get into the territory of patient blogs or forums, you're more likely to get biased advice. It may be helpful, or may be completely misleading and unnecessarily fear-inducing.

5. Your doctor is the expert in medicine, but YOU are the expert on you!

You know yourself and your body better than any doctor out there. You'll be the first one to sense when everything's going great, or when things are not running as well as they should. Be proactive about seeking answers when you feel problems are cropping up. If you feel your doctor isn't taking your complaints seriously, get a second opinion.

And really, our current healthcare system is broken and needs a lot of work. Medical errors happen way too often, care is more expensive than it should be, millions of people don't have medical insurance, and Western medicine in general focuses too much on symptoms and diseases without talking about optimum wellness and health. Don't let yourself get lost in the shuffle.

What challenges or successes have you had trying to take charge of your health? Let us know in the comments.


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