5 things that I want my patients to know

Today’s healthcare consumer is constantly barraged with conflicting information. Does wine prevent or predispose to cancer? Should I eat certain foods or avoid them? Is this new medication going to hurt me or help me? Many issues are still controversial, but there are some things that have a large amount of evidence behind them.

1. Antibiotics will not help the common cold. Colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics kill bacteria, which is a whole different type of organism. All of us have been through colds. We know that they are unpleasant–lots of sneezing, coughing, body aches, fever, feeling run down. All of us also know that colds will go away on their own. Some patients will swear that taking antibiotics will help them, but we know scientifically that this is not true; the cold is self-limited and was going to go away on its own anyway. Much better than taking a pill that doesn’t work is to strengthen your immune system, and prevent the cold from happening in the first place. Get adequate sleep. Eat a healthy diet. If you do have a cold, drinking lots of fluids and taking Tylenol and ibuprofen is key to your recovery–not antibiotics.

2. A CT scan will not help a headache. Having a headache, just like catching a cold, is unpleasant. Your head throbs. You might feel that you can’t concentrate and go about your daily activities. While there are potentially serious causes of headache, the vast majority of them are due to tension headache or migraine. These will go away with time. Again, over-the-counter medications like tylenol and ibuprofen can help, as can rest in a quiet, dark room and lots of fluids. A CT scan will only show what you DON’T have, and, in the vast majority of cases, will not help make your diagnosis–and certainly won’t make you feel better.

3. Every test has potential side effects. Patients often ask their doctors for tests to figure out what’s wrong; in the same way, doctors often rely on tests to save them time of speaking to patients to make the diagnosis. The problem is that tests can only tell you what you DON’T have, and not what you actually have. Studies have shown that actually sitting down with the patient and talking to her will much more likely yield the diagnosis than any test. And every test has potential side effects.  CT scans involve radiation, and studies have shown that each individual scan increases your lifetime risk of getting cancer. Some CTs and MRIs involve administering contrast dye that could cause kidney damage. Even the simple blood draw can lead to complications like infection and bruising. This is not to say that you should never get tests done; it’s just a reminder that tests are not always the answer, and that you should make sure you know ahead of time what the risks and benefits are of every test.

4. Lifestyle changes make a huge difference. Study after study show that the single most important contributor to decreasing your risk of heart disease, for example, is your lifestyle. You can take pills to decrease your blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, and control your diabetes–but even better is to eat a healthy diet with low saturated fat and exercising. Similarly, the single biggest risk to health that is preventable is smoking. Within even a few months of stopping smoking, the risk of cancers and heart disease begins to decrease. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not easy. Working on your lifestyle requires far more investment in your time and energy than popping a pill. But it’s the most effective way to really make a difference in your health.

5. Aspirin is one of few medications that’s been definitively shown to help you. Big pharma would like us to believe that the newest and greatest drug is the best thing out there to prevent heart attack and stroke, but actually aspirin is one of very few medications that’s proven its weight. It reduces the risk of hear attack and stroke, and some studies are demonstrating that it may even be preventative against cancer. People who experience chest pain get aspirin first, before they get anything else, because it is the one thing that helps them if they are already having a heart attack. Not everyone needs to take aspirin, and there are some for whom it may be harmful (all medications, just like all tests, have side effects), but this is one more reminder that the newest and greatest isn’t always the best; sometimes it’s the tried and true that you need.

Leana Wen is an emergency physician who blogs at The Doctor is Listening. She is the co-author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Prevent Misdiagnosis and Unnecessary Tests.  She can also be reached on Twitter @drleanawen.

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