I’ve never been shy about voicing my opinions about conventional healthcare, especially when it comes to shortcomings in preventive care quality. If you aren’t familiar with the term, “preventive care” essentially refers to any form of healthcare specifically aimed at ‘preventing’ chronic diseases and serious illnesses.
Routine physicals, immunizations, health screenings, and general wellness counseling, each constitute preventive care—And, each has its own unique place in healthcare. But, there’s one component of prevention that’s frequently overlooked yet it’s arguably the most important: The practice of self-care.
Believe it or not, 40-50% of your lifetime health status is dictated by the extent to which you engage in self-care practices.
Practicing self-care involves things like eating well, exercising regularly, refraining from smoking, prioritizing sleep, keeping stress levels at bay, and adhering to medication usage, if necessary. Obviously, all these things necessitate personal or individual responsibility.
However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s also a level of responsibility that lies in the hands of the healthcare system. For healthcare providers, this involves getting to know the person behind the patient and offering up self-care strategies appropriately tailored to their individual needs, preferences, and values.
I would like to share with you a story in an attempt to explain further.
In 2002, my father underwent a routine physical for a medical transportation job during which time his blood pressure readings were quite high. After a few weeks, his assigned physician reevaluated his blood pressure and those readings were too elevated. During this visit, my 59-year-old father was officially diagnosed with hypertension.
During the same visit, the physician supplied him with a “High Blood Pressure in African Americans” brochure and immediately wrote a prescription for antihypertensive medication. She didn’t even ask my father about his diet, physical activity habits or lifestyle. All she knew is that he didn’t smoke or drink alcohol.
Had she taken a little time to interview my father, she would’ve discovered that he had a pretty sound diet and was very physically active. She would have also learned that my mother had underwent a lower limb amputation just a month prior, which put my father under a great deal of stress. Stress can indeed trigger high blood pressure.
Most important, however, this physician would have learned that my father was completely against drug use (medical, recreational or otherwise) but was open to any alternative solutions.
Over time, he had multiple visits and similar experiences with other physicians which gradually fostered a general lack of trust in the “system”.
Luckily, I was able to provide alternative solutions for my father and he was able to successfully manage his hypertension for over 10 years with regular home monitoring and daily doses of beetroot, raw garlic, and herbal tea.
Unfortunately, my father succumbed to complications of a hemorrhagic stroke in 2016 at the age of 73. Just 3 months prior to his death, he reiterated his opposition to drug use and affirmed that his death would be due to “natural causes”, as he had a distain for the American healthcare system.
I firmly believe my father’s death was inherently linked to inevitable and unpreventable stress associated with his aging status and generally being a caregiver to my disabled mother.
However, I also believe the general disconnectedness of all those physicians to my father (their patient) added to his persistent and pervasive lack of trust in the healthcare system, and, ultimately, his lack of regard for their input in his treatment.
I’m sure some of you can relate to that.
From a standpoint of healthcare, patient-physician connectedness is critical for promoting self-care. Offering generic brochures and educational information pertaining to general health, nutrition and exercise is simply not enough.
And, it’s also about time for public and private health insurers to start offering full coverage, subsidies or other financial incentives for alternative prevention and health promotion services (fitness, nutrition and wellness-related programs) offered outside the healthcare setting.
Sadly, given the current healthcare landscape, the future of such preventive care efforts appears quite grim.
For this reason, it’s never been more important for you to take responsibility for your own health by coordinating your own self-care. This means being more actively involved in the management of your routine care. Whether you schedule a physical or health screening, adopt a healthy diet or start exercising regularly, preventive care starts and ends with YOU.
But, taking responsibility also involves maintaining a high level of assertiveness in your interactions with healthcare providers.
Ask questions and always demand answers. Seek out alternative treatments and solutions for enhancing your health and general well-being and always discuss them with your healthcare provider. If they aren’t willing to meet you where you are, start looking for another provider.
Preventive care starts and ends with YOU!
As a researcher, educator and advocate for lifestyle medicine, I’m always coaching clients and communities, family members and friends through the healthcare maze. Oftentimes, this involves my listening to their concerns and exhaustively searching scientific literature to devise potential strategies for them to discuss with their healthcare providers.
Personally, I treat every visit with a healthcare provider as an opportunity to discuss new and innovative ways to care for myself. They are paid to listen and counsel. Though there’s an absolute level of expertise, healthcare professionals should be treated as medical advisors and not gods.
But, I emphasize again, preventive care starts and ends with YOU. Once you’ve started the process of holding healthcare professionals accountable, it’s also up to you to follow through. This keeps you credible.
Patients’ general unwillingness to take action upon medical advice tends to fuel the laissez-faire, hands off approach taken by a lot of healthcare providers. Responsibility is a two-way street. So, it’s important for you to do your part!
Are you doing your part?
If not, it’s time to start!
Stay ahead of your health and get screened. Most important, always discuss your results with your healthcare provider to make sure you understand them. Hearing that your results are “normal” without further explanation is not enough.
I also encourage you to refrain from smoking and eat sensibly.
You can greatly reduce your risk of lifestyle-linked chronic diseases and illnesses by consuming adequate amounts of health-promoting micronutrients and sensible portions of essential macronutrients. You should also moderate your alcohol consumption limiting it to no more than 2 drinks a day (1 drink a day for women).
In addition, physical activity is an absolute must for self-care!
You can literally cut your risk of most chronic diseases in half by performing cardiovascular (cardio) exercise and spontaneous physical activity for at least an hour a day, 5-7 days a week. It’s also important to include at least two days of full-body weight training in your exercise routine for added protection.
If you already have a chronic disease or serious illness, you’re certainly not off the hook. Besides following the strategies I’ve highlighted above, it’s also important to stick to your medication regimen or any alternative treatments put forth.
Now, following these self-care strategies doesn’t necessarily guarantee overall good health. After all, uncontrollable factors like genetics, age and gender can also influence your lifetime health status. Still, at the end of the day, engaging in self-care practices will certainly stack the odds in your favor. So, be responsible for your own health. I guarantee nobody else will.