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Become a Health Detective

Ask yourself the following:

— Did anything change in your lifestyle before the symptoms started? (For example, did you notice that rash after you ate a food you normally don't eat? Did you wake up with shoulder pain after you played a few games of tennis for the first time in years?)

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— Did anything relieve the symptoms or make them worse? (A specific activity, like lying down, or a specific medication, such a pain reliever, for example.)

— Have the symptoms gotten better or worse over time?

— Has anyone in your family had similar symptoms?

Time it right. When you call to make the appointment, ask what days are busiest and what times are best to call. Ask what to do if you have an emergency, or when the office is closed.

Take a partner. It can be helpful to take a family member or friend with you when you go to the health care professional's office. You may feel more confident if someone else is with you. Also, a friend or relative can help you remember what you planned to tell or ask the health care professional. He or she also can also be an objective listener, and help you recall what the health care professional says.

Brown bag it. During a wellness visit or after discussing your symptoms, be sure to tell your health care professional all the medications you are taking, including prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, alternative treatments, herbs and vitamins. Tell him or her the doses, and how often you take them. Consider putting all your medicines and supplements in a bag, in their original containers, and take them to your health care professional's office to discuss specific medication.

Provide the big picture. Be sure to tell your health care professional about your lifestyle, including your diet, whether or not you exercise, how much alcohol you may drink, if you smoke and other care you receive from other health care professionals.

Don't forget about stress. The physical symptoms of stress include headaches, back pain, diarrhea and chest pain, among other symptoms. If he or she doesn't ask you, let your health care professional know about any major changes, stress, losses or emotional upheavals in your life lately. This information might be useful medically.

It can be hard to discuss certain health conditions, such as sexually transmitted diseases, dependencies on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, abusive relationships and mental health issues, to name a few. You may expect your health care professional to recognize that you are struggling with a certain issue. Too often, women are embarrassed or ashamed to start a discussion. Many times, a health care professional may overlook a symptom, forget to ask about things that may affect your health or neglect to order a test. It may be up to you to start a discussion that could improve your health — or save your life. Be honest. You may be doing yourself harm by not disclosing pertinent medical information.

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Lesbians are less likely to seek routine health care because of the discomfort of coming out to health care professionals; they also may lack access to health insurance or lack the financial resources to get medical services. With fewer doctor visits, lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to have mammograms and professional breast exams. Additionally, because lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to need birth control, they are less likely to have regular gynecological check-ups and Pap tests. Choosing a health care professional who is comfortable and experienced discussing lesbian health issues are important to ensuring that your health care needs are properly addressed. The Gay & Lesbian Medical Association provides a helpful physician referral service located at http://www.glma.org/programs/prp/index.shtml. The GayHealth web site also has a healthcare provider referral service located at http://www.gayhealth.com.

Ask questions! Asking questions is key to getting what you want from the visit — no matter what type of medical visit it is. If you're visiting a health care professional for a wellness checkup, ask about:

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  • ways to make your lifestyle healthier, including your dietary and exercise practices
  • when to schedule health screenings and regular office visits
  • which screenings you should pursue.

If your health care professional recommends a test or treatment option, ask:

  • Why is this option is recommended?
  • What is the test or treatment is designed to do?
  • Are there other treatments or options I should consider?
  • How can I find out if my insurance will pay for the recommended test or treatment?
  • Whom should I call to find out test results and when? (Make sure you always receive a complete report on any tests you have done).

Speak up. Share your point of view with your health care professional. No one knows your body or the habits and lifestyle of a person in your care as well as you do. Your health care professional needs to know what's working and what's not.

Follow up. It's important to follow your health care professional's instructions exactly they way he or she prescribed them. Ask if there is a circumstance in which you should discontinue the medication, but in general, don't stop taking any medications unless you are instructed to do so. If you feel any negative side effects, call your health care professional immediately. If your symptoms or condition require a follow-up visit, ask:

  • when you should schedule your next visit
  • what, if anything, you should do or not do until your next visit.

Copyright 2003 National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC)

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