Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., has prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They will address important issues such as how to recognize high-quality health care, how to be an informed health care consumer, and how to choose a hospital, doctor, and health plan. Check back regularly for new columns.

If you're like most women, you make health decisions for your family, including your parents or relatives as they get older and need more medical care. If your child, spouse, or other family member has a chronic illness, getting them care can take a lot of your time. Finding time to tend to your own health may not be high on your list of things to do.

But taking care of your health isn't as hard as it may seem. Practicing healthy behaviors, getting screening tests, and taking medicines if you need them can go a long way toward keeping you in good health and lowering your risk of getting some diseases.

With so much health information available, it can be confusing to know what you should pay attention to. That's why my Agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, developed a checklist for women to stay healthy at any age.

The checklist is based on advice from the U.S. Services Preventive Task Force (Task Force). This panel of experts in primary care and prevention reviews medical evidence to find out which tests and medicines have been proven to work. It is an independent group, and its advice is considered the "gold standard" in health care. Its findings are not influenced by insurers, drug makers, the government, or other groups.

Women of all ages can greatly improve their health and reduce their chance of disease by daily following these five steps that are included in the checklist:

  1. Don't smoke.
  2. Exercise.
  3. Eat a healthy diet.
  4. Stay at a healthy weight.
  5. Drink alcohol only in moderation.

I won't call these steps simple, because for some people quitting smoking or getting daily exercise is not easy. But these steps have been proven to improve health and lower your risk of disease. If you have to change your behavior to follow these steps, it will be worth it in the long run.

Another way that you can stay healthy is to get the screening tests that are recommended for your age and medical condition. Screening tests can find diseases at an early stage when they are easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which ones you need and how often you should be tested.

Here are some conditions that affect women and for which good screening tests are available. The Task Force's advice on how often you should get them is included.

  • Breast cancer: Have a mammogram every 1 to 2 years starting at age 40.
  • Cervical cancer: Have a Pap smear every 1 to 3 years if you have ever been sexually active and are between the ages of 21 and 65.
  • High blood pressure: Have your blood pressure checked at least every 2 years.
  • High cholesterol: Have your cholesterol checked regularly starting at age 45. If you have diabetes, you have high blood pressure, or if heart disease runs in your family, talk to your doctor about whether to have it checked.
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones): Have a bone density test beginning at age 65 to screen for osteoporosis. If you are between the ages of 60 and 64 and weigh less than 154 pounds, talk to your doctor about being tested.
  • Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases: Have a test for chlamydia if you are 25 or younger and are sexually active. Ask your doctor if you should be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases.

Some women take medicines to prevent disease without first talking to their doctor. I advise against that: All drugs, even over-the-counter medications, have side effects and can hurt you if they are not used properly.

Keep this advice from the Task Force in mind about taking medicine to prevent disease:

  • Hormones: Do not take hormones to prevent disease. Talk to your doctor if you need relief from menopause symptoms.
  • Breast cancer drugs: If your mother, sister, or daughter has breast cancer, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of taking medicines to prevent it.
  • Aspirin: Ask your doctor about taking aspirin to prevent heart disease if you are:
    • Older than 45
    • Younger than 45 and:
      • Have high blood pressure
      • Have high cholesterol
      • Have diabetes, or
      • Smoke
  • Immunizations: Stay up to date with your immunizations. Have a flu shot each year starting at age 50. Have a pneumonia shot once after you turn 65.

As the caregiver for your family, you as a woman take on a lot of responsibility for health. Our checklist can help you give your health equal priority.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

 

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
podcast Tips for Women on Staying Healthy  (Transcript)  Podcast Help

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Women: Stay Healthy at Any Age—Your Checklist for Health
http://www.ahrq.gov/ppip/healthywom.htm

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force
About the Task Force and Recommendations
http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstfix.htm

Kaiser Family Foundation
Women and Health Care: A National Profile
http://www.kff.org/womenshealth/whp070705pkg.cfm

Current as of September 2008
Internet Citation: Checklist Helps Women Give Equal Time to Their Health Needs. September 2008. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/091608.html