By Jewel Mullen, MD
As a primary care doctor, I have devoted my career to encouraging people to believe that investing in prevention earns years of a healthier life. And now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am adding my voice to other medical professionals who have been encouraging people to get back on track with self-care by catching up on missed screening tests and committing to better ongoing management of their chronic diseases. If you have fallen behind on your medical care during the pandemic, you are not alone.
About one half of adults in the United States have put off medical (including behavioral health) care during the pandemic; and one in seven have delayed preventive care, such as screening tests. For those who missed regular follow up for their chronic conditions, almost a third reported that those conditions worsened.
If we can better control our chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, we can increase our chances of preventing a heart attack, kidney disease, or stroke. Additionally, regular screenings help detect many cancers early, when the chance to cure or delay their progress is highest.
And let me tell you a secret: I’ve fallen behind too. Recently, I called my gynecologist to schedule my annual exam. I didn’t want to be scolded, so I quickly said, “I know it’s been a year and a half since my last visit.” I was ready to blame the pandemic for my being late.
But then the scheduler responded that it had actually been two and a half years since my last visit. My mind abruptly shifted to worrying about what might be happening inside my body. Although I felt healthy, I know there are many conditions, like cervical cancer, that can develop without many warning signs. I hoped I had not missed a chance to detect cancer or some other medical problem when it could be best treated.
My appointment is coming up soon. I would look forward to it more if I weren’t dreading a lecture from my doctor. I don’t need (or want) her to tell me that I am late. I knew that when I made the appointment. I don’t want to be treated like I don’t care about my health. I do. And as a Black woman, I also don’t need the reminder that we face a higher risk of death from heart disease and some cancers than women of other races do.
So, I plan to go to my appointment inspired by three words I associate with someone who inspires me, Aretha Franklin: “respect,” “power,” and “courage.” I will take a list of the issues I want to discuss. If my doctor wants to start our conversation with a lecture, I will ask her to respect me. I will remember I have the power to steer the conversation, and I will tell my doctor to partner with me so that I can participate in decisions about my care.
I will go to my appointment with courage. I know I can do that. The fact that I even made the appointment means that I already have dealt with fear about the outcome. I’m going to try to be like Aretha.
Pick someone who inspires you and think of that person when you call up to make your follow up or annual appointment – even if you were late like me.
You can command respect to get the care that you deserve. You can own your power, and while doing so, let courage guide you to being as healthy as you can be.
As Aretha, herself, once said, “ Every day is a gift.” Don’t lose out today on what you can gain for tomorrow. Call your doctor to catch up on managing your chronic disease, and visit yourhealthbeyondcovid.org to learn other tips that can help you take care of yourself.
And if you haven’t already done so – make an appointment to get your COVID-19 vaccine too, so you can stay well!
Dr. Jewel Mullen is a primary care physician and the associate dean for health equity at the Dell Medical School. She also is the former principal deputy assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). While at HHS, she also served as the acting assistant secretary for health and acting director of the National Vaccine Program Office during the months bridging the transition from the Obama to the Trump administrations.