Healthcare would be far more efficient if we could just get rid of the patients. So goes the punchline of an old doctor’s joke.
However, at the heart of the punchline is an uncomfortable truth.
Every year, millions of us visit a doctor or accident and emergency department with minor health problems that we could deal with ourselves.
The UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has advised patients to ask themselves 3 questions before booking a doctor’s appointment:
The problem at the heart of modern healthcare systems is we’ve become reliant on seeing a doctor to reassure us and give us guidance.
According to a House of Commons report, 38% of people who visit an accident and emergency department leave after receiving nothing more than advice and guidance.
But why shouldn’t we seek reassurance from trained professionals when we’re feeling anxious? Most people don’t have a science degree or understand the statistical likelihood of their symptoms being something serious.
Dr Phil Hammond, the doctor and comedian, contends that 90% of symptoms get better over time and more than half are medically unexplained. In essence, most ailments cure themselves, but how do you know you haven’t got the 10% that don’t?
People also differ in how seriously they rate symptoms. As Dr Hammond points out, a sore throat for a truck driver is annoying but for an opera singer, it’s devastating.
The bottom line is that everyone’s health beliefs, perceived vulnerabilities and pain thresholds vary, and doctors spend much of their lives listening and providing information and reassurance.
But according to Professor Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the RCGP, ‘up to a quarter of appointments could be avoided or sorted out by other means’.
So how do you decide when to consult a doctor?
Well, first of all you can use Your.MD to assess your symptoms and get access to trustworthy health information and vetted products and services. But to help, here is a common sense guide to when to consult a doctor and when to stay at home.
Things that happen suddenly and involve the loss of something require immediate medical attention. If you lose your speech, vision or ability to breathe go straight to your nearest accident and emergency department. The sudden onset of severe acute abdominal or chest pain will also require investigation. Likewise, the following should all be dealt with immediately: bone breakages, head injuries, suspected poisoning, drug overdoses, heavy bleeding or if you’re vomiting blood.
If you feel unwell, before you book an appointment with a doctor there are things you can do to help yourself. These include:
It’s reasonable to contact a doctor after 48 hours if there’s no improvement or your temperature exceeds 40C.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.