July 28, 2008 -- Heading to the doctor's office? You might want to persuade a friend to tag along. New research suggests that older adults who bring companions to medical visits are more satisfied with their medical care.
The study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was published July 14 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Frankly, their findings were no surprise to me! I suspect that the study would also find that these patients had better health outcomes, too.
For most people, going to a doctor's office for even a routine examination is enough to raise blood pressure and spike anxiety levels. Checking into a hospital can be even more worrisome. What's at stake is everyone's most important asset: good health.
The increasingly complex health care system of the 21st century promises unprecedented possibilities for your health, but it also presents unprecedented possibilities for misunderstandings and mistakes by both patient and physician. Such errors can cost you a bit of money, a lot of money -- or perhaps even your life.
Nobody should try to navigate the system alone. Everyone should have what I call a health buddy who goes along for routine checkups, annual tests and who, during hospitalization, can serve as an extra pair of eyes, ears and perhaps hands. There's nothing like having a friend or relative lending support, encouraging you to tell the whole story and helping you make sense of what the doctor says. It doesn't take a skilled person -- just someone who can listen, absorb and care.
I have found that the fear of medical findings can reduce even the most powerful, assertive person to saying, "Yes, doctor," and "Thank you, doctor," instead of asking important questions. Imagine what it is like for an older adult raised on the notion of an all-knowing family doctor. So many of my older patients believe that somehow as the physician I surely know everything about how they feel, their medical history and what they need even without asking.
Your health buddy can help you prepare for a doctor's appointment by rehearsing possible concerns and writing down important questions. During the visit, your health buddy can bring up what you may be reluctant or embarrassed to ask and take comprehensive notes. A health buddy is also indispensable after leaving the doctor's office, helping you follow through on what the doctor advises. Did you know that studies show that the average patient forgets half of what is said as soon as the appointment is over? A health buddy will see that you don't forget.
When you or a loved one is hospitalized, a health buddy can be at your bedside to fetch a glass of water, mop a damp brow, keep company during long waits for tests and monitor care.
When it comes to a personal health buddy, I practice what I preach. I was a health buddy when both my father and husband, also a physician, were hospitalized. Almost nothing that I did tapped into my medical experience. Far from it. I was there to notice when sheets needed changing, help avoid diet or medication glitches or to keep well-meaning visitors from staying too long.
For the record, I too go to doctor visits with a health buddy. A friend and I always schedule our GYN appointments together and then review our concerns over lunch. It's a comfort to both of us. Even for those who practice medicine, certain experiences can be intimidating.
I also take a health buddy for preventive health check ups such as my mammogram and colonoscopy. My girlfriend had a family history of colon cancer but was afraid to have a colonoscopy exam. She stated she would only go "if I would go with her and have an exam too." I promised I would -- and when I turned 50 I delivered on this promise. I called her and scheduled the exam for both of us.
I can't tell you how reassuring (and almost fun, as we joked about the gallon of laxative we had to drink and why we needed our own separate bathrooms) it was for both of us to undergo the preparation and exam together. I have had many others share with me similar stories as I spread the word in my talks to audiences throughout the country.
A health buddy usually is a relative or a good friend, but anyone without family or close friends nearby can find a volunteer health buddy through local support groups or religious organizations.
What about starting a volunteer "healthy buddy corps" for our most vulnerable seniors? What about offering to be a regular health buddy for your neighbor, a friend, or family member? Have you been a health buddy for a family member or friend? I would love to have you share with us your experience?
As always, I welcome your questions and comments.