How much you smoke, drink, eat, exercise and whether you use protection during sex or while out in the sun matters. Doctors weigh in on what matters most.
By Lindsay Tigar
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Your surgical history
Nestor Rizhniak/ShutterstockWhen you first see a new doctor because you switched jobs and healthcare providers or relocated to a new town, you’ll be filling out tons of medical and insurance forms. (Know the secrets your insurer might be keeping from you.) A biggie in the long slew of “yes” and “no” checkboxes refers to your surgical history. From minor procedures to major operations, Manhattan plastic surgeon David Shafer, MD, says being honest about your past will help alleviate complications in your future. Though many of his surgeries are elective, every surgeon needs background info to minimize your risk for scar tissue, reactions, and more. “I always find it concerning when a patient tells me they have never had surgery, and when I examine them they have what are clearly facelift incisions,” he shares.
ESB Professional/ShutterstockAs you begin to approach middle-age, start menopause or feel those aches and pains of getting older, you might be tempted to tell a little white lie about exactly what decade is on your birth certificate. Instead of fibbing, try laughing about your increasing years by working in some senior jokes. While it’s likely not a big deal to fudge the truth to a bartender, grocer, or random stranger at networking event, your doctor needs to know the honest truth about everything, including how many candles were on your last birthday cake. Not only is your age a crucial element to how they prescribe a treatment, but it’s information they’re going to find out, no matter what. And lying about it? It could break that essential doctor-patient trust. “I know patients don’t like admitting their age, but it’s very important to be truthful,” Dr. Shafer says. “If a patient tells me they are 49 but then their insurance card shows a birthday indicating they are 57, I have to wonder if the patient is lying about anything else.”
What you eat
napocska/ShutterstockAfter trying to drop the unwanted pounds around your midsection without much success, you make an appointment to see your doc to figure out a game plan. If you’re not being truthful about your habits, your doctor won’t be able to help much. (Check to see if these 40 fast and easy weight-loss tips can help.)
“Studies have shown that patients underestimate how much they are eating and how often they indulge in unhealthy food. Many patients don’t want to admit the difficulties they have with complying with the prescribed diet so it is easier for them to deny that they are eating anything ‘bad,'” says Tania Dempsey, MD, an integrative doctor in Armonk, New York.
Instead of feeling shameful for giving into sweet cravings or not working out for a week (or several), explain what’s tripping you up so your doctor can give her best advice. After all, since she doesn’t eat every meal with you she can only assist based on the info you share. “If I think that the diet intervention isn’t working as expected, first I am going to question why, and then I might have to resort to more aggressive treatment options. If patients admit to their indiscretions, then doctors can work with the patient to develop strategies to keep their diet on track,” she says.
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How you’re using medications
Image Point Fr/ShutterstockWhen you can’t shake a cough or you’re experiencing an abnormal breakout, a doctor’s job is to not only diagnose you, but to help prescribe you the right concoction of medicine to overcome the illness ASAP. (Check out these common medication mistakes.) However, if you come back complaining that you’re still not over the hump, it’s important to be honest when your doctor asks how often you took the pills or how you applied the cream. “If you are not truthful about whether you are actually using your medications, then we cannot accurately gauge if they are or are not working for you,” explains Manhattan dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.
He explains that often times when patients come back for their follow-up appointment, he quizzes them on how they specifically have been using a topical medication. “It may come out that they used them for a week and gave up, are only spot treating and not applying to the full face as directed, or didn’t even fill the prescription at all. Acne medications only work if you use them properly and for an adequate amount of time,” he says.
And while Dr. Zeichner specializes in acne and skin care, the same logic applies to all prescriptions. “You are not helping yourself if you are not using them, and you are certainly not helping yourself if you aren’t being honest about not using them when speaking to your doctor,” he adds.
Your smoking habits
pixelrain/ShutterstockOne of the reasons you might say you only smoke socially, when really, you’re blowing through a pack a day? It’s less and less accepted, especially in the United States, to be a smoker. (If you need further convincing to kick the habit, check out what happens to your body when you stop smoking.) when Every doctor—from a cardiologist to a dermatologist—will recommend you cut out the dangerous habit. So when they ask if you’re puffing? You might want to lie, but Andrew J. Miller, MD, a plastic surgeon in Manhattan, says to come clean.
“One of the biggest habits that patients are often not truthful about is smoking. Nicotine is very detrimental to healing and many surgeons will not perform certain surgeries because the incision may break down causing significant scarring after a long healing process. Sometimes the patient has lied about smoking just to get the procedure done, but in the end they are just hurting themselves,” he says.
The supplements you take
Syda Productions/ShutterstockThough you might think there’s a battle happening between holistic doctors and primary care physicians, there’s one big thing they all have in common: They want to help you stay healthy and happy. Dr. Dempsey says that sometimes patients are embarrassed to admit that they are taking vitamins, supplements, or herbs because their doctor might scold them for believing in natural remedies. The opposite, actually, is true. They need to understand what you’re popping each morning to make sure they’re prescribing you what’s most compatible for your body. (Make sure you’re up on the latest vitamin truths and lies.)
“The truth is that many doctors believe that vitamins are important for patients with vitamin deficiencies. Unfortunately, there can be interactions between certain vitamins or herbs and prescription medication. These interactions could lead to higher or lower levels of the medication they are taking, which could greatly impact their health. It is crucial for patients to be upfront about everything they are taking,” she says.
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Using recreational drugs
InnerVisionPRO/Shutterstock”There is growing drug use in this country, and doctors are being kept in the dark by their patients,” says Dr. Dempsey. “Patients don’t want to admit to their drug use because they don’t want that information to become part of their medical record. They fear that it could affect their insurance policy or their employment.”
Though you might be hesitant to fess up for all of the reasons above, she stresses that being able to properly diagnose and treat you relies a complete picture of your health and vices. As an example, if you smoke marijuana semi-frequently, you might have trouble with focus and memory or you might feel depressed or moody. When your doctor sees this and knows you’re a recreational user, then they may attribute those reactions to your habit. If you don’t tell them? You could end up with a prescription you don’t need.
“If the patient is not truthful with their doctor, the patient might get treated unnecessarily with powerful psychiatric drugs to combat these neuropsychiatric symptoms, when all that might be needed is stopping the recreational drug,” she explains. “Smoking marijuana and other drugs is harmful to the lungs and doctors need to know this in order to screen patients appropriately. There are many other potential side effects of drug use so it is dangerous for you to be treated in the medical system without a doctor’s knowledge of this part of your history.”
If you’ve had an abortion
Pressmaster/ShutterstockAs a delicate, sensitive, and private choice and experience, an abortion isn’t the easiest of topics to discuss, even with your doctor. However, if you want to one day have a family when you’re ready or you’re now struggling to get pregnant, San Diego reproductive specialist Jane Frederick, MD, says your doctor needs to know your full medical history, including an abortion.
“There can be scar tissue and damage to the uterus. We want to make sure that we have a good uterine cavity before we implant any embryos during IVF. Knowledge of an abortion will help us properly evaluate the uterus, offer a proper medication protocol and take extra steps to make sure the uterus is ready for implantation,” she explains.
How you’re really feeling—mentally
Darren Baker/ShutterstockYou’re allowed to answer “Fine” to an acquaintance’s “How are you feeling?” But be straight with how you’re really feeling with your doctor. If you’re feeling ‘blah’—tell them. Kind of depressed, sometimes, maybe? Say that. Anxious and not sure what to do about it? Be open.
Says Michael Alper, MD, a fertility specialist in Boston, “No matter what, aim to share these feelings with your doctor if you feel unhappy or “stuck.” We understand the emotions you may be feeling. By speaking your mind and being honest, no matter how imperfect you may feel, it helps you to feel better. And it helps us,” he says. “An honest dialogue frees your mind when speaking with a doctor. It will do wonders for helping you to process information in a clear manner, recall questions you may have previously had, and give you a renewed sense of confidence and control.”
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Your sexual history
Marina Fedosova/ShutterstockHow many partners you’ve had, when you last had sex, if it was unprotected and if you’ve had an STD. All of these are pretty private questions, but they’re also ones that Jaime M. Knopman, MD, director of fertility preservation at CCRM-NY and co-founder of Truly, MD, says are must-knows for doctors. She reiterates that doctors won’t judge you; they’re trying to help.
“We just want to know so that we can keep you safe and educate you on safe sex practice. If we don’t know what you are doing and who you are doing it with, we can’t test you for the appropriate conditions or come up with the best way to keep your reproductive organs healthy,” she explains.
When you last went to the doctor
Pressmaster/ShutterstockYou haven’t had a teeth cleaning since 2010. You have—eek!—never been to an eye doctor. You had a physical, maybe two years ago? You might have a less-than-stellar track record of keeping up with medical appointments, but here’s the thing: Your doctor doesn’t care. In fact, they’re just glad you’re sitting on the examining table now, ready for a check-up. Instead of skirting the truth about the last time you sought care, be up front so your new physician can treat you accurately. “If you are new to a physician, we don’t know what happened and how frequently it happened in the past. Routine screening keeps you safe. Don’t lie about when you went to the doctor last and what they did or did not check. It won’t help us know how best to take care of you in the future,” Dr. Knopman says.
That you’re nervous
Arman Zhenikeyev/ShutterstockEven if you don’t have Iatrophobia—the fear of a going to a doctor—it’s pretty common to feel nervous when you’re sick. If you’re Googling your symptoms, you might be expecting the worst, but your doctor is there to make you feel comfortable and at ease. A little secret to getting the best care? Be honest about the fact that you’re scared. “Often times, anxiety shows itself by being mean or rude to staff or doctors. We are here to help you and are very used to helping people get through dental treatment. We would love to give you options to ease your anxiety or nerves, but it helps if we know,” explains Nancy E. Gill, DDS, a dentist in Golden, Colorado.
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How much time you spend in the sun
Antonio Guillem/ShutterstockEven on the coolest day of winter or when it’s overcast and raining, dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen or other forms of sun protection to shield your pores from harmful, dangerous rays. So when your doctor inquires about how much time you’re spending outdoors, they’re asking so they can understand your hobbies, habits and how much sun damage risk you’re exposing yourself to.
“Most people do not realize that they get sun exposure on a daily basis going in and out of their car, or going to get mail, as well as when they are actively outside whether for work or play,” explains Purvisha Patel, MD, a dermatologist in Germantown, Tennessee. “Skin cancer is caused by the sun, so getting patients to be compliant with sun protection is important and understanding their lives helps tailor their prevention techniques.”
How much you drink
Uber Images/Shutterstock”How many drinks do you have a week?” The answer will vary, depending on if you’re hanging out at home with family or on vacation with your best friends, but what your doctor is trying to understand is your habits. This is especially essential if you ever need surgery, as alcohol abuse can have permanent damaging effects to your liver that may increase bleeding, according to neurosurgeon David Poulad, MD, a member of the neurology group IGEA Brain and Spine and on staff at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey.
“Alcohol abuse can also cause patients to go through withdrawal during a hospitalization. Alcohol withdrawal can manifest with seizures and needs to be recognized in order to be treated appropriately. If we know about a history of alcohol abuse, we can treat a patient prophylactically to avoid this possible complication,” he explains.
Here’s how much it’s actually safe to drink each week.
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