Learn 'How Not to Die'

These are medical terms that describe a fear of doctors or dentists, respectively, in which people put off getting medical attention, making excuse after excuse, until sometimes it's too late. Why do we fear doctors? I think one of the big reasons is that we're filled with dread that some serious problem might be found and we're afraid of hearing bad news. It's scary to be a patient. It's even scary for me to be a patient! Though we like to think we'll live forever, we're all here temporarily. Seeing a doctor brings us face-to-face with our own mortality. There are other reasons we avoid seeing a doctor. Maybe you don't think your symptoms are important. Maybe you're concerned about wasting a doctor's time. Or maybe you don't want to spend the money because you're uninsured. I can't tell you how many people I've autopsied because they didn't want to incur a medical bill. Or maybe you're a man.

Men in this country are much less likely to see a doctor than women are. Their reluctance may be one reason why the life expectancy of men is eight years shorter than that of women. Men repress pain, ignore symptoms, and deny sickness, in part to demonstrate their manhood. Society conditions men to "tough out" illness. They don't want to feel like wimps or go to the doctor for nothing. If a man does see a doctor, it's often because a woman in his life has made him go.

No one likes to get sick. It means that you can't do the things you enjoy or the things you live for. When you're sick, you don't feel like doing much of anything, except lying in bed. You might get better on your own, but then again, you might not. If you stay sick long enough, sooner or later you'll have to go to the doctor, whether you want to or not.

Wanted: A Great Doctor

If you're afraid of doctors, one of the best ways to get over your fear is to be under the care of one you like and trust. To find that kind of doctor takes a bit of sleuthing. Here's what I do: I look for a doctor who is geographically convenient, and I won't go to any doctor who is not board certified in his or her specialty or subspecialty.

Board certification means that a doctor has had extra training after medical school and internship in an approved training program to become an expert in a field of medicine such as family practice, internal medicine, or gynecology, then has passed a rigorous qualifying examination ("the boards"). Personality is important to me, too, so I ask around to get a feel for what a doctor is like. Nurses are a great resource, since they're the ones who work with doctors day to day and see how they treat patients. I also ask friends, family, coworkers, and colleagues.

Another good source is the website of the American Medical Association (www.ama-assn.org) with its DoctorFinder link. It gives you basic professional information on virtually every licensed physician in the United States. Of course, if you belong to a managed health-care plan, your choices are limited to doctors who are a part of that plan. I also want a doctor who treats me with respect and doesn't sugarcoat things. What you need most is good communication. You end up telling a doctor a lot of intimate details about your life.

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