Who is responsible for your health? The answer might surprise you.

As an herbalist, I find myself in an interesting place.  People come see me when they are tired of dealing with the pharmaceutical-based medical system.  Either they are not getting the information they want about non-drug options, or the drug options are not resolving their concerns.  I see people who are ready to try something else, people wanting to be more in charge of their own health.  What I wish would happen is that more people would come talk to me before they get to this point of frustration and failure. I’d like to propose that it is time to change our view of the role of “health professionals” play.  I’ll say that what follows is an observation of my own community, and probably will be a little different, depending on where you live.  I find that quite often, people are outsourcing their healthcare decisions and wellness responsibility.  Or, to say it another way, we’re leaning far too heavily on this unknown “they” to make decisions about what is the best choice for you and those for whom you’re responsible, like kids or pets. We seem to give up our power to some person in a white coat, often just because they wear that white coat.

Imagine this scenario for a moment.  You’re at work/school/volunteer location or wherever you go to spend the majority of your day.  You happen across a person who claims to be a financial planner.  In the course of conversation, this person suggests that in order to be more financially stable, you should take all your money out of your accounts, send it to a foreign bank, and give that same financial planner the sole authority to manage it.  What would be your initial response?  You’d say that this person is crazy (or at least a little odd).  You’d dismiss those suggestions - even though that person has been trained and may even be licensed as a financial planner.   After all, that person is a stranger.  They don’t know you or what you’re trying to achieve.

Why do we do that very same thing when we encounter a health professional?  Chances are, most of the doctors you visit are not people who know your history or goals.  They write prescriptions for medications that we immediately take to the pharmacy and start ingesting, without considering the potential side effects or interactions.  We treat their advice as infallible and their authority as unquestionable.  Losing all your money would be tragic, but recoverable.  Dying because of a medical mistake is, well, terminal.  Stimulates some thinking, doesn’t it?

Many years ago, I was seeing my primary care doctor (who was assigned by my insurance), and I really felt like he wasn’t listening to me.  He clearly had an agenda – we all have metabolic syndrome and he was going to prove it.  He prescribed many drugs, scheduled ridiculous tests, and complained that he couldn’t help me if I wouldn’t comply.  Curiously, none of my symptoms were related to any of this.  I was suffering from a lack of sleep and post-partum depression, but being in the midst of that, I couldn’t do the research and better explain my situation and symptoms.  Now often, women are sent away with a prescription for anti-depressants and a suggestion to take it easy, but in this case, I got a prescription for beta blockers and metformin.  My instinct told me that his suggestion was the wrong approach, but I felt stuck because of the challenges of insurance.  I’m fortunate that I was able to work with my insurance company and get a change, but it’s not always that easy.

I share my story not as justification to kick your own doctor to the curb or as evidence to prove that ‘big pharma’ has it out for us.  They might, or they might not, but that’s a different article.  I’m just suggesting that even though doctors, by and large, want their patients to be well, they’re just people.  The white coat does not bestow superpowers.  The stethoscope doesn’t make them omniscient.  The prescription pad doesn’t mean they are infallible.  In fact, medical errors kill more than 200,000 people each year and harm more than 4 million, or moreMedical errors are the #3 killer in the US.

A lot of these concerns are a direct result of the way the US healthcare system is managed.  Because insurance companies are, for the most part, managing costs, they drive everything to the lowest possible level.  That means that visits are cut short – the average doctor visit is just 17.4 minutes.  It means that treatments and medications are limited to those deemed ‘most affordable,’ not necessarily the most effective.  Health professionals are stuck between wanting to give their best care and struggling to meet cost and schedule targets from insurers.  That uncomfortable place means that health professionals disappoint their patients by not offering their best care, and they upset insurers by requesting treatments and medications that are expensive, experimental, or the ever frustrating “not medically necessary.”  In most cases, the insurer wins out, because in the end, that’s where the money comes from.  The end result is that health professionals treat symptoms, not take time to research and resolve root cause.  They offer the best fit of medications from the available formulary.  To meet the ‘customer satisfaction’ metrics, the physicians end up with only enough time to soothe the most troublesome symptoms rather than looking to resolve the real problems.  Another complication is the ‘fee for service’ model, where health professionals are rewarded with larger payments for more complex treatments or for ongoing visits where a patient receives only symptomatic care rather than resolving the root cause.

I do not and will not ever suggest that a client should not see their health professional or to stop a treatment or medication prescribed for them.  Physicians, by nature of their education and experience are granted special authority to order tests, prescribe medications, and perform treatments and surgeries.  These are vitally important roles in keeping us well.  What I am suggesting here, and in my own practice, is that instead of trusting and heeding recommendations blindly, we look to health professionals as advisors.  Whatever the suggestion, we should consider their input, ask questions, do research if we need, and evaluate the risks and benefits of the proposed plan.  If you’re seeing someone for an ongoing condition, you can share your findings and exchange ideas.  Remember, your physician will only see you for less than 15 minutes.  There’s probably a lot more happening than you’ll remember to discuss, and there may even be history that never seemed important to share.  If your physician isn’t open to this kind of dialogue, I’d suggest you look for other advisors.  Maybe seek a naturopath – in many areas, naturopaths have the same privileges as MDs.  See an herbalist or nutritionist for additional suggestions.  Maybe you would be best served with a second medical opinion.  The bottom line is that your health is a result of your decisions – whether you make them consciously or outsource them.  May I suggest that you choose wisely.

Lisa Akers