People are not just an amalgam of their body parts. Men are not composed of large prostate glands, sclerosed coronary arteries, and rusty libidos, although sometimes it feels that way. We come in complex packets of various sizes, shapes and colors, and attached to families, jobs, communities and cultures. Just like everyone else, we need primary care physicians as our allies and advocates in staying healthy, and getting the best possible health care.
Your primary care doctor — either a family physician or a general internist — should be the captain of your healthcare ship. Primary care physicians not only can handle the majority of illnesses that you may experience, but they can work with you to keep you healthy. They can help you decide what makes sense in a world where numerous entities are hawking remedies for life’s ills, from pills to diets to operations. The primary care doctor can help you select from this bewildering array of options, and then be your advocate when you do need specialized care beyond his or her repertoire.
So what should the average man do to get the most out of the health care system? The following are my suggestions distilled from over 30 years of being a doctor:
1) Select a primary care doctor.
The time to choose a primary care doctor is before you need one. Ask your friends whom they go to. Check with local clinics and hospitals and see which primary care doctors work near your home or your job. Check and see if your wife or significant other or child has a family doctor who would take you into his or her practice.
Then go and interview the doctor, find out whether their philosophy of medical care jibes with yours. Discuss your approach to health and illness, and see whether they will support you in your quest. Check their training and references to make sure that they have the training and skill that you need. Make sure that they are board certified in their respective specialty. There are advantages to seeing the same doctor as other members of your family. But probably the personal chemistry between you and your doctor is the most important factor in this choice.
2) Visit your primary care physician before you’re sick.
Almost all doctors have health maintenance protocols that are aimed at men your age, and consist of a schedule of regular visits and diagnostic tests designed to catch important problems as early as possible. Make sure your health maintenance protocol is up to date. For most patients, this will involve a visit every year or two, depending on your age, background, and the medical problems you may have accumulated along the way.
3) Negotiate a plan with your doctor.
Medicine is a team sport, you and your doctor share the quarterback duties. Your doctor has a set of guidelines that are based on medical science and the evidence it produces. You have a set of values and preferences that will determine which of those guidelines make sense for you. Work with your doctor to come up with an approach that makes sense for you.
4) When you do need specialty care, work through your primary care physician.
Specialists will give you their honest opinion about the best therapy for your problem, but your primary care physician will help you put it into context. Primary care doctors can also help to coordinate care among multiple providers, watch out for interactions among drugs or therapies, and will still be available to care for you after a more specific problem is resolved.
Bottom Line: It is almost impossible these days to sort out the best approach to health care. Your primary care physician is the strongest ally in choosing a path that makes sense for you. The few minutes you take to make this very important selection may just be the most important decision of your life.