Frugality and Fear of Health Care

Jennifer writes in:

My husband had been complaining about sharp pains in his side for several weeks. A few days ago I had to take him to the emergency room. He stayed overnight for observation and was released the next day with a ton of medications to take. It turns out he has a liver inflammation caused by a bacteria. He’s going to be fine.

Here’s the whole problem with this. We have health insurance with a $20 copay. My husband didn’t go to the doctor to avoid this copay because our budget is so tight. Now we’re stuck with a big pile of medical bills.

This is a problem that I often have as well. I’m a huge believer in self-care, which means that, for example, if my back hurts, I’ll just take it easy and do some careful stretches over the next few weeks instead of rushing to a doctor or a chiropractor. My instinct, in cases of minor pain, is to wait it out and see what develops.

I do that for several reasons. One, I’ve had bad experiences with prescription drugs and (especially) drug interactions in the past. An example: the last time I went to the doctor for a cold, I believed I was having allergies. The doctor diagnosed a sinus infection and prescribed Bactrim. I found out the hard way that I’m actually very allergic to Bactrim. Two, I usually feel better if I find non-pharmaceutical ways to treat a minor condition. And, yes, it’s less expensive, too.

This type of attitude – something that many frugal people follow – brings up a challenging point. When do we decide that it’s the appropriate time to go to the doctor? Ideally, there would be some magical indicator somewhere between “a few minor symptoms” and “emergency room situation” that tells us that it’s time to go to the doctor, but unfortunately, most of the time, there is no such indicator. When does an otherwise healthy person with good money sense visit the doctor?

Here’s what I’ve found.

First of all, my primary help in figuring out when to go is my wife – and I’m her guide as well. We’ve reached a balance in our relationship where we’re easily able to tell each other when there’s a problem. If I hurt my back, for example, I don’t try to use a stiff upper lip to hide it – I tell her what’s going on.

Second, I don’t use the internet to diagnose my medical problems. Almost every ache or pain a person has, when researched online, turns out to be cancer or ALS or multiple sclerosis or something else dreadful. Diagnosis should be left in the hands of a professional using professional tools, not someone reading a website, rubbing a bump, and guessing.

Third, I’m mostly concerned with chronic or worsening conditions. Over the short term, I don’t worry about most things unless they’re showing clear signs of getting worse. A cold is not a sign I should run to the doctor, but a cold that lasts for months is a sign that a repeat visit might be in order. An ache or a pain is just a sign that I’ve been overly active and I need to take it easy for a bit, but an ache or a pain that gets far worse over time or swells substantially means I might need to focus on it a bit.

Finally, I use free nursing services. Many communities offer a hotline where you can call medically trained professionals for quick advice and direction as to whether you should seek additional help or steps you can take to deal with a medical situation on your own. In my community, for example, First Nurse is available. Such services can go a long way towards helping you figure out whether a condition you have actually merits additional medical costs and efforts or whether it’s just a temporary thing that should just be monitored from home.

Your health isn’t something to mess around with. At the same time, being overcautious with your medical treatments can result in additional problems, from challenging costs to side effects of medications. If you’re struggling to find your own balance, I highly recommend seeking help from the people around you. Don’t ever be afraid to ask the people you care about most for their help and advice when you need it. It’s given with love and it’s given for free, whenever you need it. Never turn away from that resource.

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