What's more valuable to you: your car or you? One of the observations I have made since moving back to Canada is that Canadians do not want to pay for healthcare. We contribute to our Medical Services Plan and we believe that our "free" healthcare system should be all we need. And for some, it is. However, many Canadians are still struggling with health issues, despite having a family doctor and access to low-cost or "free" lab testing and imaging. This has me thinking about one of the six guiding principles in naturopathic medicine: praevenire, or prevention. It is such a simple word and yet its power is immense. Even as a naturopathic doctor, I often gloss over this word. What does it mean to practice prevention and why do so few of us do it? Why do so many of us have difficulty investing in ourselves?
I have a question for you: How much money did you spend on your car in the last year? How much on service expenses? What was the cost of gas and car insurance? If you’re like the average Canadian, you probably spent around $3000 or more on your car in the past year. Of course, this doesn’t include any car payments, parking expenses, parking tickets, speeding tickets, car washes, etc. And yet most people accept these costs as part of their daily living expenses and many people take pride in caring for their vehicle. Now here’s another question: how much did you spend on your health in the past year?
The principle of prevention is seen in our conventional healthcare model in many ways; infants are evaluated at their regular well-child exams, we have immunizations to prevent against transmittable infections, bone mineral density scans to screen for osteoporosis, Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer, mammograms to screen for breast cancer, digital rectal exams to screen for prostatic abnormalities and the Fecal Immunochemical Test and colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer. But what about all the other diseases? What about diabetes, atherosclerosis, mental health issues, and all the other types of cancer? And what about all the non-life-threatening and undiagnosed diseases that people just learn to cope with on a daily basis? As part of the prevention effort, Canadians are advised to maintain a healthy weight and, if over forty, have their blood pressure assessed annually, but those of you who have habitually gone for an annual physical exam might be interested to know the BC Medical Services Plan no longer includes these appointments in its coverage. Even our car gets an “exam” twice per year, in most cases.
Even if your symptoms are assessed using laboratory analysis, many individuals with treatable health concerns are slipping through the cracks with lab results that are not optimal but not glaringly abnormal either. How many times have you gone to see your family doctor with troubling symptoms and had lab testing done, just to be told everything is normal, or that your illness is just something you’re going to need to learn how to manage? This commonly occurs for individuals with hormonal complaints like PMS, irritability, mood swings, headaches, difficulty with weight loss, fatigue, irregular menstruation, hair loss, and night sweats, and with folks who have digestive problems like chronic gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, and abdominal pain. There are a lot of people who are coping with these everyday complaints when they don’t need to have them at all.
If you recognize the utility of regular maintenance check-ups for your health, you’ll be happy to learn that naturopathic doctors are well poised to fill this gap and can perform regular screening physical exams as well as order screening blood work. Furthermore, as experts in disease prevention, our goal with patients is to achieve complete symptom resolution and lab results that are not just normal but optimal. The lab ranges we use to diagnose the onset of disease are much narrower than the standard reference ranges, which helps patients be proactive about their health, rather than reactive. Identifying that a lab value is drifting out of optimal range in its earliest stages allows an individual to participate in their health and make changes before things get worse. And I can tell you, there is no treatment as powerful as prevention!
Chronic disease does not happen overnight. You don’t go to sleep on a Tuesday in good health and wake up on a Wednesday with cancer. Diseases like cancer and heart disease can take decades to develop. In addition to regular screening physical exams and blood work, there are many ways to practice prevention, from eating a whole-foods organic plant-based diet to drinking adequate water to moving our body regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. Avoidance of alcohol and tobacco significantly lowers the risk for developing numerous diseases. Investing in healthy foods, recreational equipment, a gym or yoga membership, spa services, massage therapy, and counselling services are all an investment in our overall health. Naturopathic doctors can provide emotional support as well as tips and tools to make positive health changes more achievable.
There are two more barriers to prevention that need to be mentioned—one is the issue of self-worth, and the other is avoidance. Many people do not invest in their own health because they frankly do not prioritize themselves in their lives. It is often the case that parents and caregivers invest their resources into their children and loved ones and completely neglect to consider their own health. If this sounds like you, I encourage you to care for yourself the way you care for other people and possessions in your lives. You are worth it. You will be a more effective parent, caregiver, and person if you approach life and relationships from a place of health and balance, and everyone (and everything) in your life, including you, will benefit as a result.
Others avoid seeking medical care out of fear of learning they have a serious illness. Men, in particular, are notorious for avoiding the doctor even if they have had bothersome symptoms for years. For most of us, a diagnosis can provoke anxiety, fear, and despair. It is unpleasant to face these emotions head-on, but doing so can positively foster the development of inner strength, resilience, and determination, all of which allow us to become fully actualized human beings. Understanding what is going on with your health actually gives you more control. No matter what is going on with your health, most diseases have multiple treatment options, and our goal as healthcare providers is to support patients’ unique values, preferences and goals in selecting treatment that is best for them.
Neglecting to obtain medical care until bothersome symptoms have persisted for weeks, months, or years is analogous to holding off on having your car serviced until it’s puffing out black smoke and strange clunking noises are heard from the engine. At this point, a new engine is perhaps the treatment! It’s a very invasive and expensive treatment, not to mention a terrible way to care for your car! In human terms, a delay in treatment may lead to a need for long-term pharmaceutical treatment, an invasive surgery, a long-term hospital stay, an organ transplant, or even death. If our car is totalled in a crash, or if the cost to repair it is too high, we will just replace it with a new car. But we are not replaceable. We have only one physical body to drive in this lifetime. So let’s take care of it.
Invest in you!