There’s a good chance you’ve been with your general practitioner for a few years. You go in a couple of times a year (hopefully no more often than that), you chat about your respective families and the state of your career, he (or she) listens, pokes, prods, palpates, and possibly prescribes. And you listen and do your best to follow instructions. Your GP is a health care professional, and there’s a degree hanging on the wall decreeing as much. So he or she must know what it takes to be healthy.
In an ideal world, the answer would be yes. But this world isn’t ideal—especially when it comes to health care.
Doctors need to prescribe behavior not pills
Most doctors aren’t in the health care business. They don’t prescribe behaviors to make us healthy. They prescribe pills and surgeries and treatments to make us un-sick. Most doctors I know only rarely mention diet or exercise or stress-relief techniques to their patients, in part because they don’t believe that their patients are willing or able to follow through with such a program. Rightly or wrongly, health care consumers have come to expect quick-fix solutions from our doctors that require little to no action on our part—except maybe to take a pill or show up for a procedure. The implied agreement between you and your doctor is that you will show up sick and he or she will give you something to make you well.
In some circles, this is changing. Doctors are literally prescribing exercise—writing “Aerobic exercise 3x/week 20 minutes/day” on their prescription pads and handing it to their patients, knowing that, to a completely sedentary person, almost no single behavior can be as beneficial to a person’s health as exercise is. Bravo to them.
Many doctors aren’t in a position to give health advice
Too many others, however, are too embarrassed or resigned to bring it up, and instead they offer a few vaguely reassuring words, and maybe prescribe a pill to treat the patient’s depression, or blood thinners to treat his cardiovascular disease. Indeed, they’ve bought in to the medical myth of the patient as a passive recipient of treatment. These doctors are sometimes seriously overweight and deeply unhealthy themselves, and they often do little to combat unhealthy habits in the people around them. In fact, studies have shown that the standard of care given by doctors is in direct relation to their own health and fitness. Obese and overweight doctors, for example, are less likely to talk to their patients about health, exercise, and nutrition.
Give your doctor a check-up
Here’s an assignment: next time you visit your GP, turn the tables. Look for indications of his or her health. Does his skin look healthy? Do his eyes look vital? Does he stand straight? Does he appear lean, muscular, athletic or is he overweight? Would you want his physique? Ask him about his program for personal health: Is he at least conscious of his diet? Does he get vigorous exercise regularly? Is he up-to-date on the new dietary principles and exercise techniques? Does he know the difference and risks/benefits of a Paleo diet v Atkins? What about the fat debate and other topical issues?
Paul Chek, a kinesiologist and a health and fitness expert, suggests you give your doctor one simple test: have him take his shirt off. If he looks good, says Chek, you can feel confident taking health advice from him. If he doesn’t, find someone else. And Chek is only half kidding. He sounds a bit crazy – but personally, I can’t take advice from anyone who doesn’t walk the talk – in life, business, or in their own health.
Doctors who have a real understanding of health, not just unsickness, are a rare breed. Med school offers little to no information on nutrition or integrative wellness. If you keep up with medical news in the popular press, you may possibly know more about cutting-edge medical research than your doctor does.
Be informed and proactive
A couple of other points to bear in mind when you see your doctor: Go in informed. Check your symptoms on cdc.gov (not some random site!) before seeing your doctor. Then, instead of being intimidated by the white coat and the formal manner, take charge of the room a bit. Have a list of questions going in and tick off the answers as you get them. Often doctors speak so quickly that you leave the exam room more confused than when you came in – especially when the average patient visit is only 11-13 minutes. Whenever your doctor prescribes a treatment, get all your options first. Many doctors accept perks from pharmaceutical companies for prescribing particular medications (check projects.propublica.org/docdollars to see).
If you don’t like the advice – change
At the end of the day, if your doc is more interested in plying you with pills than in maximizing your health, don’t be afraid to switch to a new one—no matter how long you’ve been together. Find a new doctor through the recommendations of like-minded friends—not through your insurer, who’s trying to limit costs.