Worried about going back to the doctor for a checkup? The anxiety is real. Here’s how to stay calm. | Elizabeth Wellington
Throughout the pandemic I put off my doctors' appointments. The mammogram could wait. The pap smear could wait even longer. But it's time to get over the fear and go back.
I’m that woman who starts worrying about her doctor’s appointments two weeks before her scheduled visit. Just thinking about stepping on a scale makes me break into a cold sweat. Diabetes runs in my family. It’s only a matter of time until my blood tests reveal sugar issues, right? Could that new birthmark on my leg be skin cancer? I do my monthly breast checks, but what if I missed a telltale sign?
It’s no wonder that when I arrive at the doctor’s office — after spending 20 minutes frantically looking for a parking space — that when the nurse takes my blood pressure, it’s off the charts. Twenty minutes and a physical later, it’s dropped back to normal. (But still.)
With all of my white coat anxiety, you can imagine the sense of relief I felt last year when wellness checkups were halted as the medical community worked to get COVID-19 under control. I couldn’t go the doctor. It wasn’t my fault. The mammogram could wait. The pap smear could wait even longer.
A year into the pandemic, however, that excuse doesn’t cut it anymore, said Margot Savoy, chair of the department of family and community medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. “People are waiting so long to make their well-visits that by the time they do come back they are hearing all the horrible news they didn’t want to hear because their chronic diseases are so far out of control.”
Time is up, people. It’s time go back to the doctor.
Really, it’s OK to resume your checkups
Doctors did a really good job telling us to stay away from doctors offices and clinics, but Savoy said, the medical community did a lousy job letting people know it was safe to come back. “We have entirely different protocols now,” Savoy said. “We space people out in our offices. And at this point most of the medical staff has been vaccinated,” she said. Another fact: Doctors’ offices are regularly disinfected and patient visits are spaced out so the waiting rooms aren’t overly filled with fidgeting people.
When you make that doctor’s appointment, you are taking back your power.
But just because the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from your general practitioner’s office is low doesn’t mean you’re mentally ready to go back. I know I wasn’t. Not only was I worried about coronavirus exposure in the waiting room, but what would the doctor think about the extra pounds I gained?
Let it go, said Maya Bass, a family physician at Drexel University College of Medicine and Tower Medicine. Your doctor is not here to judge you. “You’ve come in and you’ve gained weight since your last checkup? Welcome to the party,” Bass said. “I’m not here to pass judgment on your life. My job is to help you get healthier. I’m here to help you move forward.”
The bottom line is fear of the unknown is actually worse than what you do know, Savoy said.
“When you make that doctor’s appointment, you are taking back your power,” Savoy said.
Telemedicine is your friend
Even if you haven’t seen your doctor in over a year, Savoy said, you can resume your connection through telemedicine. In the 15 to 20 minutes allotted for a telehealth visit — a video chat with your doctor — you can discuss your concerns and any changes you’ve noticed in the last year. From there, the doctor can order blood work and the necessary screenings for cancer like your mammogram, colonoscopy, and prostate or cervical cancer tests. Your doctor will consult your records and make sure you are up-to-date with your vaccines and other routine maintenance, like an eye exam or a dental appointment.
Then when you visit your doctor to check your vitals, you won’t have to explain so much. “This way the patient isn’t spending so much time explaining themselves, they can get in and get out, and we can do what’s most important — start a plan to get you back on the road to good health,” Savoy said.
Bring a friend
Just because you may not be able to bring a friend into the office with you doesn’t mean one can’t ride with you to the doctor for moral support. “That friend can also be your accountability partner,” Savoy said. You may think your fear of the doctor is silly. But these are different and difficult times and the fear is normal, Savoy said. “You have to have patience with yourself and reaching out for moral support is what you should do.”
If your doctor’s office does let a companion accompany you, your buddy can not only provide emotional support — like doing breathing exercises with you in the car — but they can serve as a second set of ears. When we are nervous, we don’t hear things as clearly. A friend, Savoy said, can listen objectively, take notes, and even provide solace if you do get the bad news you’ve been dreading.
You may also want to bring two or three prepared questions with you, Bass said. “Any more than that might require a second visit. But if something is really nagging you, write it down so you don’t forget.”
Yes, you can
It’s normal to be nervous around doctors. Thefear of doctors is defined as iatrophobia, but most of us — including me — aren’t suffering from that. “That would mean that if you had a heart attack right now, you’d be apprehensive about going in,” Savoy said. “You could tell them their legs were falling off and they’d tell you they’d rather stitch them up at home.”
So I sucked it up and made all of my appointments, starting with the mammogram I missed last year. A call came two days later, that I had to come into additional testing. (See, I told you, I should skip it.) There were small changes, yes, but all was well. I went to see my gynecologist who ordered a sonogram to check on my growing fibroids. They are still growing, but I’m OK.
After having my blood pressure checked twice, a visit to my family physician revealed that yes, I had gained a few pounds. And yes, I do need to watch my blood sugar. I’ve been practicing yoga during the pandemic, but I know I’m not getting enough cardio. It would probably help if I resumed running outdoors regularly again. After a leg injury a few years ago, I just haven’t built my courage back up. There is no time like the present.
Doctors know we are dealing with trauma. And let’s face it, many of us have unintentionally picked up not-so-great coping habits to deal with the stress of the pandemic, the death of loved ones, job losses, and chronic racial unrest. That’s why it’s so important to stay on top of our physical health, Savoy said. We need to get physically right so we can muster up the courage to get mentally strong.
“Even if you haven’t been to the doctor in 10 years, it’s not too late,” Savoy said.
“For many of us, going to the doctor is that kick in the pants we need to remind us that we need to go back to eating healthy, cut back on the fast food, and take the time to breathe, be mindful,” Bass said.
So if you haven’t yet, make that well-visit appointment. After all, you’ve made it this far.
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Margot Savoy, MD, MPH, chair of family and community medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University