During COVID, our health medical worries were taken to a new level. Millions of women were worried sick about how to protect themselves, their parents, children, spouses and loved ones. And unfortunately during this time, far too many of our “regular” health check-ups fell to the wayside. Millions of Americans put their regular medical maintenance on hold, with fewer mammograms, blood tests, gynecologist visits and so much more. (Because not only did we not want to sit in germy doctor’s offices, in many cases, our doctors were simply closed for months.)
Now that things are opening up and we’re making up for lost time with some of our regularly scheduled medical visits, it’s a good time for us to take a breath and consider ways we can improve our health and save money. Because the price of medical care, like everything else these days, is on the rise. Between 2019 and 2020, per capita health spending in the U.S. saw a 10% increase, larger than increases in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. (And annual health spending per person in the US now stands at nearly $12,000 — and we already knew that was outrageous, but for context, that’s more than twice as much as what we see in other comparable countries.)
To make some moves that will save women’s health and help save women money, we checked in with Dr. Stacey Rosen, Senior Vice-President of Women’s Health at Northwell Health, the American Heart Association’s 2021 Physician of the Year and the co-author of the new book Heart Smarter – A 6 Week Plan to a Healthier Heart.
First, Find a doctor you trust
It may sound obvious, but Rosen stresses that the single most important thing a woman can do for her health is to find a doctor with whom she can develop a lifelong relationship. “It can be a gynecologist when you’re younger, or an internist or a family medicine doctor,” she says, “but so many chronic conditions are preventable or at least manageable if you have one single doctor who’s kind of the captain of your ship and you can build a trusting relationship. That’s very important.”
With that said, there’s no one best doctor, Rosen stresses, and choices may be limited by the type and quality of health insurance one has, but that should not stop a woman from finding a doctor she trusts. Women have long had their symptoms ignored or simply felt unheard or misunderstood by their doctors. (We know women’s pain is routinely underestimated, and gender stereotypes are to blame). It’s important to keep searching until you can find a doctor who listens to you and will join you in a conversation about your health, without judgment or bias.
Focus on the things you can manage
Increase your activity level. (Maybe you stopped going to the gym or going out for runs as much during COVID, but it’s time to get back to your routine.) Make healthier food choices. (Again, we ordered a lot of takeout during the pandemic… cutting back will save you money and calories.) Also, by now we know the importance of getting enough sleep and avoiding stress wherever possible.
“You can’t change your genes,” Rosen says, “but the choices you make every day, not all of which cost, are critical. As far as physical activity, we know that people who move more lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. They maintain brain health and cognition longer into their adult lives. For women, their bone health is improved.”
Rosen says that expensive gym memberships or fancy home equipment isn’t necessary to the health benefits of moving more. “You really just need to walk.”
“The same thing is true food choices,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be organic or fancy, but fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Smart food choices are extremely important in maintaining health and mitigating chronic diseases.”
And don’t forget to get your rest. “We’ve always been a society that’s hard driven,” she says. “We used to brag about how little sleep we needed. But over the last ten years or so, we’ve seen a lot of science that shows the health benefits of adequate sleep – six to eight hours – and not to consider that a luxury.”
The last lifestyle change, and the one that may be toughest to control, is stress. “But mindfulness and meditation is free,” she says. “And there are free apps – do a daily meditation or listen to a relaxing podcast. Spending time with friends or volunteering has also been shown to minimize stress and expand longevity.”
Prevention Is Key
Finding out something before it becomes a costly problem is also a good way to stay healthier and save money. Rosen recommends preventative strategies, whether it’s a cancer screening or tests for heart health, diabetes or high blood pressure.
A trusted doctor won’t send you for unnecessary tests, but if there’s something unusual you’d like to check in on, this is where you can use your medical and/or family history to determine where you might be at risk — then just request the tests you want. “Knowing the appropriate testing to optimize health is important,” Rosen says.
Be a good patient
Being a good patient means more than just showing up for your appointment on time. It’s time to start asking questions.
“Being a good patient is also being a self-advocate,” Rosen says. “Come to your visit prepared, with a pad and paper. Ask your doctor if you can record the conversation if you’re concerned you will miss or forget something. Sometimes people walk into a doctor’s office and take their clothes off, put on a gown, and forget they’re adults. If you’re hard of hearing or don’t focus well in a doctor’s office, bring somebody with you to stay for the consultation. And if a doctor doesn’t explain something to you so you understand, you’re allowed to ask again: ‘I didn’t understand what you meant by arteriosclerosis, doctor. Can you explain to me what that is?’ An empowered patient is a better patient. And empowering yourself is free.”
Also, try to know as many numbers and facts about your health as you can, before you go.
“Learning to be a good patient will help you get the most out of your relationship with your doctor. This means keeping a log of your past medical history, your family’s medical history, the medicines you have taken and take now, any side effects you may have had, any operations you’ve had, tests you’ve had, your vaccinations, your pharmacy number, and more,” Rosen says. Just keep it in a folder or in an app on your phone. (This way, it will not only be ready for your doctor, it will also be handy should you find yourself in an emergency situation one day.)
Understand your insurance
If you have health insurance, try to understand what it pays for and what it doesn’t before you start visiting doctors — the last thing you want is for a basic trip to a primary care doctor to leave you with a big out-of-pocket expense. Also, make sure that your trusted doctors are aware of your insurance and your financial situation – they may be able to avoid a certain test that’s not covered, or prescribe a generic instead of a name-brand drug.
Also, if you’re having an elective surgery, work with your doctor to have it done after you’ve hit your annual deductible. And if your employer allows it, consider a Health Savings Account (HSA) if you know you’re going to have annual medical expenses of a certain level.
And if you don’t have insurance (or if you’re between insurance policies) first, get covered as soon as humanly possible. If you do have to pay out of pocket for some things, make it clear to your doctor or to the facility giving you a test that you’re uninsured and paying out-of-pocket. You may be able to get that $150 office visit down to $80… It never hurts to ask. (Getting paid through insurance companies can be very time-consuming and slow, especially for understaffed doctors’ offices. Even a specialist may be willing to cut you a break if you’re prepared to pay cash or write a check.)
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