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Physician Heal Thyself

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One Boomer's Thoughts on Wellness


 by Paula Moore Hurtt

     Last year for Christmas, my sister gave me and all the ladies in our family a Medical Records Notebook. Each notebook contains folders for storage of prescriptions, lab reports, receipts and appointment cards, space for contact information on doctors and loose leaf paper for jotting down questions, concerns and  doctors’ instructions.

     When I received this thoughtful gift, I thought to myself, “What a great idea! Why haven’t I thought of doing this before?”

     As health care changes in America, it is easy to lose track of our own or a loved ones' medications, appointments and care instructions. And most of us know that as we age, we find ourselves taking more medication and having to visit more doctors even as our memories become a little less sharp. As a result, adults aged 65 or older are twice as likely as others to end up in the emergency room for adverse drug events and nearly seven times more likely to be hospitalized after such an event.

     According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), adverse drug events – injury resulting from the use of medication – result in more than 700,000 emergency room visits annually. Many of these emergencies are the result of mismanagement of medications such as overdosing, forgetting medications and mixing contraindicated drugs.

     If that’s not scary enough, in 2004 over 7,500 Americans died of unintentional overdoses of opioid analgesics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. That’s more people than died from cocaine or heroin overdoses. (CDC).

      Part of the problem is decentralization and specialization. Gone are the days of the family doctor who treated the whole family, made house calls, knew all our ailments and managed all our meds.   It’s common now to see multiple doctors as our medical needs grow with increasing age. And too often our physicians aren’t communicating with each other. In some cases, patients go to various doctors who write prescriptions which may be filled at different pharmacies, so drug interactions and potential overdose scenarios aren’t discovered until it’s too late. This is such a common occurrence, it has a name… “Polypharmia”…and it can cause not only dangerous drug interactions, but also misdiagnoses of dementia, clinical depression, and other conditions.

      How can we avoid these nightmare scenarios in our lives and those of our loved ones?  Well, there are steps we can take to be more responsible patients and health care consumers.  

     Keep good records. 

     My medical records notebook now goes with me to every doctor’s appointment.  In it I have: 

  • Names and phone numbers of all my health care providers
  • My health insurance information
  • A list of my meds including over-the-counter meds and supplements
  • A list of my doctors and their contact information
  • A list of allergies
  • A list of former surgeries, hospitalizations, current diagnoses, etc.

     Prior to visiting the doctor, I can jot down any questions or concerns I have so I won’t forget them at the appointment and also write down my doctor’s instructions while I’m there. (By the way, I have found that most doctors appreciate my active participation in our appointments. I once had a doctor tell me that he liked prescribing medication to jail inmates because it was the only time he was absolutely sure they would take all their medication at the appropriate time every day. Doctors understandably get frustrated when we don’t follow instructions then come back with more problems. And apparently, that’s an issue they face with some frequency.) In addition, if I end up in an emergency situation or ambulance ride, something which happened to me twice last year, my notebook can be brought to the emergency room making the whole communication process with busy health care workers easier for me and my family in a stressful and frightening situation.

 Form a partnership with at least one of your doctors.

     We all need one medical professional to be our primary medical caregiver. Whoever it is, whether a G.P., Family Physician, Physician’s Assistant or Nurse Practitioner, this individual should be informed of any  new medications or protocols prescribed by other doctors as well as hospitalizations, changes in medical conditions, etc. It is not necessary to visit the primary care giver with every change, but it's a good idea to at least send a note and ask that it be placed in your file or ask your specialist to send his notes to your primary doctor. Then next time you visit her, you can discuss those changes.

 Get to know your pharmacist.

     Pharmacists are often better informed about the latest research on new medications, drug interactions, contraindications, dietary restrictions, side effects and potential overdosing issues than busy doctors. Ask your pharmacist about any new drugs you are prescribed. Have him check for interactions with drugs you are currently taking or any food or drink which should not be consumed with the new drug. Your pharmacist may notice a problem your doctor has missed.

Partner with a family member.

       Family members may notice subtle changes in your behavior, energy level, moods, appetite and other personal issues before you do. So, it’s a good idea to provide your primary doctor with verbal or written permission to communicate with that family member since HIPPA regulations prevent medical professionals from talking about your condition and history with others without your permission. Family members are often your first line of defense in the identification of new medical conditions or problems with drugs.

 Be a responsible patient.

    Medicine should not be something doctors do to us. It should be a partnership between us and all our medical professionals. Keeping good records, taking our medications as directed, staying current on check-ups and immunizations and following good overall health habits is more than half the battle in the effort to stay healthy and active into our "golden" years.

Get informed. 

      There are lots of good resources available for those of us who want to take a more active role in our health care.  Following are just a few that I found:

      Health care is on everyone's minds these days, especially since it has become a political lightening rod.  That said, the reality is that it always boils down to personal responsibility. 

      It's really a new way of looking at the old adage..."Physician Heal Thyself."


 Paula Moore Hurtt is a freelance writer specializing in mental health issues.
She is happy to report that she is in good health.