Whether for monetary reasons, fear of doctors or simply a lack of trust in the health care system, many Americans don’t visit the doctor as often as they should. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 85 percent of Americans visited the doctor or other health care professional in a calendar year. Considering there are about 255 million adults in the United States as of 2019, that means more than 38 million Americans didn’t see a doctor.
What’s the worst that could happen if you avoid the doctor’s office? Better yet, why do you even need a doctor if you’re not sick? The answer: many benign health problems can easily become an issue without proper oversight. We’re here to explore exactly what happens when you neglect your health and why you should prioritize regular checkups.
Why don’t people go to the doctor?
Many people are reactive — instead of proactive — when it comes to health care. In other words, they only see a doctor when they’re sick. However, preventive care appointments are just as important. Even if you feel healthy, there’s a chance there could be a medical condition that only lab work, a physical exam or a medical scan would identify.
On average, men are less likely to see a doctor than women. The Cleveland Clinic conducted a 2019 study that found 72 percent of men would rather do household chores than visit the doctor. Of the men who did go to the doctor, a portion admitted they weren’t forthcoming either due to the fear of embarrassment or because they didn’t want to hear their lifestyle needed changes.
Rising insurance premiums and the cost of co-pays or co-insurance also factor into Americans’ decision to avoid regular checkups. A 2020 survey by Databank discovered 32 percent of families didn’t seek medical care in the last 12 months because of the cost.
In other cases, patients have a real fear of seeing a doctor, also known as iatrophobia. This fear of doctors affects 3 percent of Americans and results from anxiety about finding out bad news. To cope with this anxiety, people with iatrophobia avoid the doctors altogether — the theory being they can’t receive bad news if they simply don’t go.
Over time, the anxiety becomes cyclical. People with this fear eventually need to go to the doctor when their ailment becomes urgent enough. Thus, the negative experience they deal with only makes their anxiety worse for future medical problems.
Regardless of why people skip out on doctor’s appointments, here is just a sample of the screenings you’re missing out on.
- Blood pressure screening
- Testicular cancer exam
- Colorectal exam
- Skin cancer screening
- Cholesterol level test
- Diabetes test
- Glaucoma test
- Breast cancer screening
- Heart scan
- Cervical cancer screening
How does delaying health care impact patients?
All diseases and disorders start somewhere, and the prognosis is much better the earlier your doctor catches it. Unfortunately, many health problems remain neglected for months or even years. By then, a straightforward condition, when left untreated, can become a nightmare to deal with.
Here is a list of common health issues that may develop or worsen if you don’t go to the doctors regularly.
Diabetes may not always present obvious symptoms, allowing this disease to go undetected without regular checkups. Untreated diabetes leads to chronic high blood sugar levels, which ultimately contribute to heart disease, stroke or issues with your eyes (diabetic retinopathy). These problems are caused by damage to important blood vessels your body needs to function. Untreated diabetes can also lead to kidney damage that requires dialysis or kidney removal. It can also cause chronic nerve damage that heightens your risk of amputation.
Routine checkups with your doctor will allow you to control and manage blood sugar levels to avoid these long-term complications.
High blood pressure
Considering blood pressure is one of the first things your doctor measures during wellness visits, it’s one of the easiest components of your medical history to keep track of. Yet, by neglecting your health, you run the risk of going years without knowing there is a problem. Why? High blood pressure rarely presents symptoms, and about one in three people don’t know they have it. The longer high blood pressure goes untreated, the more stress it puts on your blood vessels, thus increasing your risk of heart attack, stroke or aneurysm. You may also experience vision loss or kidney disease.
The good news is simple changes such as diet, exercise and certain medications can manage high blood pressure. If you’re over 40 and have risk factors such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, we recommend a $50 heart scan that screens your vascular health.
Being overweight may not seem like an obvious sign to see the doctor on a regular basis, but you’re more likely to develop serious long-term health issues. Chronic weight issues can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. In fact, nine out of 10 new type 2 diabetes cases are from people who are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Regular checkups will allow your doctor to monitor these conditions before they become problematic. They can also assist you with obesity treatments, including diet and nutrition assistance or more drastic measures such as weight loss surgery.
It’s easy to think of cancer as something you can’t prevent. However, that assumption is wrong. The American Cancer Society estimates 42 percent of cancer cases and 45 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. are due to potentially modifiable risk factors. Furthermore, cancer survival rates increase the earlier doctors detect the cancer.
Not scheduling screening appointments or annual checkups can be detrimental. For example, early detection of localized breast cancer that hasn’t spread outside the breast has 99 percent five-year survival rate. If it goes undetected and reaches an advanced stage, the survival rate decreases to just 28 percent.
It’s common for GI disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) to slide under the radar. You may think the diarrhea or abdominal pain is a product of the foods you eat as opposed to a bowl disease. But failing to address these problems can result in irreversible bowel damage. It can even increase your risk of bowel obstructions, the formation of fistulas and abscesses and cancer.
A simple screening by your doctor can detect these bowel diseases, and they can provide you with treatment options to enjoy life without pain or discomfort.
Mental health disorders
Mental health stigma plays a key role in disorders such as anxiety and depression going untreated. Like many other health conditions, mental health disorders don’t go away on their own. More than half of people with mental illness don’t seek help, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Left untreated, mental health disorders can spiral into addiction and, in severe cases, suicide. Chronic stress from mental health disorders can also impact your physical health and increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke or diabetes. If you or a loved one need help, speak to your doctor about preparing for a mental health visit.
Women’s reproductive health concerns
When it comes to reproductive health in women, there are several conditions that can go unnoticed or undetected. Endometriosis (problems affecting the uterus), uterine fibroids (non cancerous tumors), interstitial cystitis (chronic bladder condition), polycystic ovary syndrome (producing more male hormones than normal) or pelvic inflammatory disease are all problems that may masquerade as common women’s health issues such as menstrual cramps or female bleeding. But, if left untreated, these issues can lead to chronic pain and, in some cases, infertility.
Osteoporosis is often called a silent disease because there aren’t normally any symptoms associated with this bone disease. Even if you break a bone, your first thought probably isn’t that you may have osteoporosis. Over time, your bones can become so brittle they result in more serious fractures to the spine or hips. Talking to your doctor about osteoporosis can help prevent it or slow down its progression.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STD)
A 2021 report from the CDC estimated one in five Americans have a sexually transmitted infection. Many of these infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, gonorrhea and herpes often don’t have symptoms and therefore go undiagnosed. For example, herpes can remain dormant in your body for years. Even syphilis can be confused with a run-of-the-mill illness because a sore throat and rash are two main symptoms.
If these STDs remain untreated, you increase the risk of reproductive health problems, chronic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease, birth defects and miscarriages.
How often should you go to the doctor?
If you don’t remember the last time you went to the doctor, then you’ve probably waited too long. In general, you should see a primary care doctor at least once a year for a general checkup and blood work. Chronic conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, require more frequent checkups.
For wellness visits, your doctor will check your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, immune system health and kidney and liver function. This is also a time when you can mention any lingering medical or mental health problems. If necessary, they can refer you to a specialist.
For women, you should schedule a women’s wellness visit with a gynecologist each year for a pelvic exam, especially if you are sexually active. At the very least, you should see a gynecologist every five years for an HPV test or HPV/Pap co-test. This test screens for cervical cancer. More frequent visits are beneficial to detect sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or any issues with fertility.
To help keep your teeth and eyes healthy, you should visit a dentist and optometrist on an annual basis. Likewise, a dermatology visit each year is beneficial for people with a family history of skin disorders or skin cancer. Dermatologists will check your skin for any potential cancerous growths.
To learn more about preventive health care appointments, visit the INTEGRIS Health primary care page.
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