Importance and relevance of the family physician

In the new era of corporate hospitals, retail medical clinics and multi-specialty healthcare centres, the tribe of general/family physicians is dying out. But it’s worth the effort for families to maintain ties with caring general physicians

family physicianApart from your parents, spouse, close friends, and colleagues, it is your family doctor who knows you best. Whether it’s a common cold, fever or muscle spasm, it’s your family physician who receives the first SOS and provides the remedy with empathy. But in the new era of corporate hospitals, retail medical clinics and multi-specialty healthcare centres, the tribe of general/family physicians, who know their patients and their families intimately and provide personalised advice and care, is dying out.

Though the new era global healthcare industry provides families advanced medical options, it is destroying the traditional doctor-patient bond of personal care, empathy and trust. More options have led to confusion and prompted hopping from one doctor to another for routine consultations. Adding to the confusion is ‘Dr. Google’ with most people, including children googling the Internet for medical diagnosis and advice. Incorrect self-diagnosis through the net leads to consulting the wrong doctor paving the way for expensive and unnecessary tests, X-rays and invasive procedures.

Sometimes even though you consult the best doctor, he might mislead you by making you undergo expensive tests, treatments and surgeries. The most common examples are removal of tonsils, uterus and especially fertility treatments. It is easier to advise expensive hospitalisation and surgical removal of tonsils, describing it as an unnecessary appendage than to treat it non-invasively. The uterus is also often also labelled an ‘unnecessary’ organ that has outlasted its usefulness especially if the required number of children has been delivered. Ditto with fertility/IVF treatments. Many a times hospitals force couples to undergo scans and treatments instead of advising natural remedies such as weight loss, active sexual life and well-balanced diet.

Other examples of illnesses for which doctors advise expensive surgeries and treatments are joint replacement and obesity. Although the obvious remedy is to advise patients to switch to healthy lifestyles and diet, regular exercise and six-seven hours of sleep, too many medical practitioners advise painful and expensive treatments without fully briefing patients about their drawbacks and side-effects. The rule that all should follow while consulting a doctor is: caveat emptor (‘buyer beware’).

However it’s not my case that all medical practitioners are robbing you of your time, money and energy. There are many doctors both in the government and private sector who work selflessly to provide the best advice and medical care to their patients. But, to consult them you need to wait patiently in long queues. Moreover with medical insurance companies increasingly footing hospital bills, medical professionals are faced with the temptation to overcharge and recommend investigations and tests that aren’t really required. Most doctors have acquired their medical degrees at great expense, need to hire consulting rooms and reimburse support staff, and a few extra tests or procedures keep both the patient and doctors happy.

In conclusion, my advice is two-fold: First, do thorough research before choosing a doctor/ surgeon and always get a second opinion and insist on being told the healthy and non-surgical options. If you have moved to a new city, ask friends/colleagues to recommend trusted doctors. Most importantly, stick to one doctor instead of hopping from one to another. It’s best to invest time and effort to locate and attach the family to a caring general physician who will have your family’s rather than corporate interests in mind. That’s why many young adults don’t stop consulting their childhood paediatricians.

Secondly and most important, invest in your health and well-being. Regular exercise, healthy diet, and six-seven hours of sleep will ensure that visits to medical centres are few and far between. Choose exercises that you enjoy, be it swimming, brisk walking, running, cycling or even dance-based workouts such as Zumba or aerobics. And remember to include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet.

(Dr. Gita Mathai is a well-known Vellore-based pediatrician and author of Staying Healthy in Modern India)

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