No, really. Get to know it.
I feel everyone should be in touch with their body. Many individuals hand over their health to a practitioner and don’t really check to see what they’re being given and/or told (which can be a problem if the doctor filled out the wrong prescription or didn’t know something integral about the patient’s health that could affect their care). I find it terribly unfortunate that so many people don’t know what’s going on inside them and lay their lives fully in health-care providers’ hands. Not to say we shouldn’t trust doctors, but to trust them blindly is a mistake. Healthcare is a two-way street and I think patients definitely have responsibilities to ensure that they’re getting the best care possible, partially because they have insider knowledge about their bodies/ailments AND because doctors aren’t perfect (did you know many of them receive less than one week of sex-ed as part of their professional training regimen?).
Patients need to know their bodies to better assist clinicians in collecting data to inform decisions about how to proceed in a medical setting AND they also need to educate themselves about the medical processes that are affecting them or COULD affect them (due to risk level, heredity, etc.). However, while I feel it’s somewhat irresponsible to just go to a doctor without knowing anything about one’s body or the medical care one is receiving (or hopes to potentially receive), I must acknowledge that not everyone has access to this sort of information. Heck, not everyone has access to the conversations that would even bring up the need for this type of preparation, never mind the actual information that would aid in it! For that reason, we need to not only urge people to get to know their bodies, but help provide systems that encourage it. We need an approach that deals with the individual, but also the structural issues that create (or help) body shame/fear/ignorance flourish.
With that said, it’s my hope that by personally promoting body-knowledge in certain circles and classes, it will become a more normalized practice and thus spread. Furthermore, there are many different levels of knowledge and awareness about these issues, so while not everyone has to have a PhD, we should all strive to cover as many bases as we can with the backgrounds and life situations in which we are enmeshed.
But back to the point: know your body.
Why? If a patient is unaware of what standard procedures are, what to look for in a provider, how to recognize warning signs for specific illnesses, how could they advocate for themselves and ask for what they need? How could they tell if their doctor forgot something, or if their doctor is incompetent (or, vice-versa, amazing)?
The reason I bring this up is because I’ve gone through some interesting patient/doctor interactions and I’ve reaped the benefits of my preparation. For example, I went to the OB-GYN a few years back and she was very impressed by my knowledge concerning HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), Gardasil (an FDA-approved vaccine that protects against certain strains of HPV), blood-work, and urinalyses. She repeatedly said how amazed she was that I understood all these terms and knew what was going on. I explained that I like knowing what I put in my body and understanding the things I’m told, so whenever I get a lab result, vaccination, or prescription, I look up information about it. For example, when we did my check-up, I talked about how I’d had my Gardasil shots and so I felt I wasn’t super at risk for genital warts, but that I knew the vaccine only protected against certain strains–16, 18, 6, 11–though not all of them, BUT that 2 of those it covered were the ones that caused 90% of genital warts and the other 2 were the ones that caused 70% of cervical cancer. I also discussed that I was skeptical about having a UTI (which parts of my urinalysis seemed to point to) and we both concurred that it was probably just a contaminated sample, citing the number of bacteria and squamous epithelial cells as proof.
Because of this research and knowledge, I was able to ask things and explain some of my concerns while simultaneously pulling in facts to substantiate my questions and comments. I think this was the biggest thing for me, honestly; being informed helped me articulate better what I needed, thought, and was afraid of in a language that was meaningful and appropriate for the setting. Furthermore, it helped me realize when I was later dealing with an incompetent doctor!
Next: how to prepare to be a better-educated patient!