Five Questions to Ask Your Primary Care Provider

Five Questions to Ask Your Primary Care Provider

When you visit your primary care provider, it’s often for a specific reason, rather than a general checkup. No matter the reason for your next visit, come prepared with some general questions that will benefit your overall health. Amy Eisenberg, MSN, FNP-BC, a nurse practitioner at Highland Medical, P.C., Pearl River Internal Medicine, recommends asking these questions:

Do I need any cancer screening tests?
“I always tell my patients that it’s much better to prevent a disease than to address it once it’s there. It’s also better to detect disease as early as possible to get a jump start on successful treatment,” Eisenberg says. That is especially true when it comes to cancer. Ask your provider which screening tests you should be getting, and how often, based on your age, gender, and family medical history. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends screening for breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. The Pap test can find abnormal cells in the cervix that may turn into cancer. Screening tests for colon cancer, such as a colonoscopy, can find precancerous polyps (abnormal growths), so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. For people with a history of heavy smoking, an annual lung cancer screening test with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) can catch lung cancer early, when it is more treatable. 

Eisenberg says, “In terms of whether you should be screened for prostate cancer, you should discuss the risks and potential benefits with your provider.  Some prostate cancers are very slow growing and it is still uncertain whether they are dangerous and if treatment is beneficial.  Given the uncertainties, age is not the only indicator for screening for prostate cancer.  A man’s overall health status should be taken into consideration and men should be given the chance to make an informed decision.” 

What should I be doing to keep my heart healthy?
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death, and is very preventable. The best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease are to eat a high-fiber, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and veggies; get enough sleep; get at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week; maintain a healthy weight; and do not smoke. “If you’re at increased risk of heart disease due to your lifestyle or family history, your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels should be monitored regularly,” Eisenberg says. “If lifestyle changes aren’t keeping your levels down enough, your provider may recommend medication.”  

Do I really need these supplements?
“Even if vitamin or mineral supplements are natural, it doesn’t mean they’re safe,” Eisenberg says. “Unlike prescription medication, herbal or vitamin supplements aren’t subjected to the Food and Drug Administration’s strict approval process.”

Tell your primary care provider which over-the-counter supplements you are taking, including the dose. “Some herbal medicines can interact with prescription drugs, which is why it’s so important for your provider to know what you’re taking,” Eisenberg says. For example, the herbal supplement St. John’s wort, when combined with antidepressants called SSRIs (such as Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, or Zoloft) can cause a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. 

Taking high doses of vitamins also may be dangerous. For example, high doses of vitamin C and supplemental calcium (as opposed to dietary calcium) can cause increase risk of kidney stones, Eisenberg notes.

Do I really need this antibiotic?
It’s important to avoid taking antibiotics if you don’t really need them, Eisenberg says. 

Patients who come to the doctor with cold and flu symptoms often expect to leave with a prescription for antibiotics. But the drugs don’t work against viruses, which are often the cause of common winter illnesses. 

“Antibiotic resistance is occurring from the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change or mutate into an antibiotic-resistant strain in response to the use of these medications, which means the drugs won’t be effective later on when you really might need them,” Eisenberg explains.

If your doctor does prescribe an antibiotic, ask if you really need it. “Some illnesses, such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or bladder infections, should be treated with antibiotics,” Eisenberg says. “In cases of pneumonia, antibiotics can save lives. But for the common cold and flu, antibiotics aren’t helpful.”

What online resources should I rely on for medical information?
“It’s natural to look up your symptoms online, but before you do that, ask your doctor which websites they recommend—there is a lot of misinformation out there,” Eisenberg says. She tells her patients that websites with .edu, .gov, or .org addresses tend to be the most reliable. “Stay clear of forums or websites that are trying to sell you something,” she advises.