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What Australians should know before making key healthcare decisions

26 Nov 2020
What Australians should know before making key healthcare decisions News image

By Tim Michael

Almost 60% of adult Australians have low individual “health literacy” which may prove  detrimental when making key healthcare decisions, a health expert warns.

Dr Zoe Wainer, the Director of Clinical Governance at Bupa Australia and New Zealand, says health literacy is important for everyday well-being and long-term health – and is critical in the current global health climate.

Health literacy doesn’t refer to scientific ingredients in a tablet, or how to pronounce complex medical terms, Dr Wainer says.

It’s understanding basic health terms, such as following the instructions on a prescription, knowing the difference between public and private health, where to seek health advice and understanding benefits when you’re entitled to receive them.

Low individual health literacy is associated with higher use of health services/costs, low levels of knowledge among consumers and poorer health outcomes.

Dr Wainer says healthcare professionals should address this problem to help patients make more informed decisions.

Below is a list of vital healthcare questions that all patients – particularly those with chronic pain – should be asking:

What should I be asking for in my general health check-ups, and how often should I go?

Regular check-ups are an important part of a prevention routine alongside good health habits to help you enjoy longer, healthier and happier lives.

The aim of a health check is to help find, prevent or lessen the effect of disease – the right checks at the right time may also allow for earlier treatment and better outcomes.

Health checks can identify areas where positive changes can help keep you on the right track with your health goals. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to health, as it all depends on your individual circumstances and personal health needs.

Go through the list below with your GP to chat about which checks and vaccinations are most appropriate for you. This will help you to determine when and how often you might need them and how best to keep track of how you’re going in these areas.

  • Blood pressure
  • Vaccinations and working out which are needed for your age group
  • Cholesterol and glucose levels
  • Your weight, body mass index (BMI), waist and hip measurements
  • Skin cancer check
  • Eye check (visual acuity as well as risk of conditions such as glaucoma)
  • Hearing check
  • Type 2 diabetes risk assessment
  • Cardiovascular risk assessment
  • Annual flu immunisation
  • Shingles immunisation
  • Pneumococcal immunisation
  • Bowel cancer screening (often a FOBT – faecal occult blood test)
  • Osteoporosis risk assessment
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STI) screenings (if sexually active)
  • Breast cancer screening (women)
  • Cervical cancer screening (women)

What things should I be looking out for and what can I check myself?Dr Zoe Wainer

Some things you can monitor on your own, but it’s usually best done in conjunction with some regular overview from your GP

You can track the following from home:

  • Weight
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood glucose

Although to accurately interpret the results and proceed with next steps, it’s recommended to discuss in greater detail with your health professional.

How can I make the most out of my GP appointments?

Whether you’ve got a GP appointment booked for that niggling cough or an annual general health check-up on the horizon, here are some tips on how to make the most of your visit.

Before the check-up:

  • If you have a long list of questions or concerns, tell the receptionist you need a longer visit so they can try to schedule appropriately.
  • Bring a list of any medications you take, including vitamins or supplements.
  • Find out as much detail about your family history as possible and bring your notes to your check-up so you and your GP can refer to them if need be.

During the check-up:

  • Mention any particular symptoms you are worried about or questions you have – don't leave this until the end.
  • Be honest about drinking, smoking and drug use as the more honest conversation you have with your GP, the more accurate your diagnosis.
  • If you’re unsure about something your doctor says in the check-up – a diagnosis, side effects of a medication or details about the type of tests they are sending you for – don’t be afraid to ask questions or get them to explain it to you again.
  • If you don’t get through everything on your list, ask your doctor when would be a good time to make an appointment for your next visit.

Your doctor may not send you for lots of tests and treatment after each check-up and that’s okay. It’s best to take appropriate, targeted action rather than waste time and money with things that are unnecessary and may even cause harm.

You can always use the following ‘choosing wisely’ questions to help you and healthcare professionals make decisions about what’s needed:

1.     Do I really need this test, treatment or procedure?

2.     What are the risks?

3.     Are there simpler, safer options?

4.     What happens if I don’t do anything?

5.     What are the costs?

What are the benefits of getting a GP referral to gain access to specialist services (including chronic pain specialists)?

A medical specialist is a doctor who has completed advanced education and training in a specific area of medicine. You don’t need a referral to see a specialist BUT not having one may mean extra costs (as Medicare will only reimburse you for a portion of your specialist consultations and treatments with a referral). And your referral often provides details about your health from a referring doctor that may help the specialist better care for you.

If you visit a specialist in the public system, you’d usually be referred by your GP to a public clinic and be assigned a specialist.

And as a private patient you can get a referral from your GP, which doesn’t need to be made out to a particular specialist. It does need to be dated, signed and include any relevant information to qualify for a Medicare rebate.

There are a few things you may want to consider if you’re able to choose your specialist, which includes:

  • Who your GP recommends and why
  • Any recommendations from friends or family who may have needed a similar treatment
  • Experience the specialist has with your treatment or condition/s, along with outcomes they’ve achieved for their patients
  • Where they practise (e.g. public hospital clinic, private rooms) as it may impact on your wait times and potential out-of-pocket costs
  • How long you might have to wait to see them
  • Any costs that they may charge

Whether they will participate in any medical gap schemes your insurer may have in place that may help you save on costs.

Dr Zoe Wainer is also Chair of the Board of Dental Health Services Victoria and a Director on the Board of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. Her passion and expertise in public health have driven formal and informal collaborations with the ICHOM and Harvard Business School in value-based health care across multiple organisations. She holds a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery from Flinders University, and has a clinical background in cardiothoracic surgery and thoracic surgical oncology.

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