Your Family Health Checkup
Ask parents what they want most for their families, and you’ll find that good health is a universal priority. The beginning of a new year presents an excellent opportunity to take inventory of a few health basics. Here’s how to get your family’s health in order:
Don’t Pass on Checkups
Doctor checkups begin within days of a baby’s birth, with additional checkups at 2 weeks, 1 month, 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 9 months and 12 months, then annual visits after that.
Jonathan Winickoff, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher with Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and Harvard Medical School in Boston, says kids who play sports should have their checkups right before their season begins. Otherwise, a good way to remember yearly visits is to schedule them around your child’s birthday.
That goes for you, too, parents. Winickoff says moms and dads also need regular medical care. “And don’t delay seeking help if you have a problem,” he urges. Review vaccination schedules before each appointment to make sure that everyone stays up to date. Bring a record of your family health history with you, as well as a list of questions you need to ask.
Have Healthy Habits
There’s plenty that families can do to stay well between those annual checkups.
Get outside, walk, run and play. Winickoff suggests looking for opportunities to be active together, including walking your kids to school. “That can be a really nice bonding time, and it’s so healthy,” he says. If the school is too far away, drive part way, park and walk the rest.
Prepare and eat healthy dinners together. You can even get hands-on with some important food and nutrition lessons. “I think it’s amazingly educational to have a garden,” Winickoff says. “Some kids think carrots just come from the grocery store.”
Avoid toxins. Everyone knows that cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking is a habit to avoid; experts have recently coined a new term to describe one of its less-visible dangers. “Third-hand smoke is the residual toxins that are left over after the cigarette is extinguished,” explains Winickoff. These toxins include lead, cyanide and arsenic, and they build up on floors, walls and other surfaces with each cigarette. Keep this unhealthy habit far from your family, and you’ll need to rely on your doctor less.
Build Your ‘Medical Home’
For good health, you also need good connections. A health-care buzzword today is “medical home,” explains Patrick Dowling, M.D., who chairs the Department of Family Medicine at UCLA. The idea is to get your health care from “a place that knows you by name, and you can reach them 24-7 if you need to.”
The linchpin of the medical home is the primary care doctor, and you should make sure yours is board certified. You can confirm this by searching online through organizations such as the American Board of Family Medicine.
Dowling also recommends checking with the state medical board to determine whether the doctor has had any problems. While a single malpractice case doesn’t necessarily mean a bad doctor, watch for repeat court action. “If this person has been sued four or five times, I would have concerns,” Dowling says.
It’s also a good idea to see how your doctor’s priorities and interests match up with your own. “If you are a parent who wants to use antibiotics sparingly, then you want a physician who practices medicine the same way,” says Erin A. Quin, Ph.D., director of the baccalaureate M.D. program at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
Finally, find out your doctor’s hospital affiliations. You’re looking for someone who is either on staff at a hospital or works directly with a doctor whose primary focus is hospital medicine and who functions as a trusted colleague to whom your primary doctor can “hand the ball off,” says Dowling.
The hospital itself should be big enough to provide your family with a full range of services. “You probably want a hospital that’s 150 to 180 beds,” Dowling says, adding that the facility should also have a 24-hour emergency department, proper certification and a good reputation.
Ideally, your doctor will be part of a practice that includes two or three other physicians so that a partner can see you if she or he is unavailable. The practice should offer convenient services (for instance, on-site facilities for blood draws and convenient access to off-site X-rays) and people you can reach by phone any time of the day or night.
“Accessibility and a willingness to answer questions is paramount,” says Quin. When you call, the person you talk with should be helpful and caring. And they should be able to put you in touch with someone with the specific medical knowledge you need right away.
Know Your Policy
In many cases, your choice of doctor will be determined by your insurance carrier. And if you’re looking for information about your health insurance, there’s really only one place to start. “You’ve got to read the policy,” says Ankeny Minoux, president of the Foundation for Health Coverage Education (FHCE), a nonprofit organization that connects people with insurance information.
It’s not exactly light reading (Minoux says information about her own policy came via a 150-page book), but you don’t need to go cover-to-cover to learn what you need to know. “What I always go to first is the plan overview,” Minoux explains. Look there for an overview, then turn to the summary of benefits for more detail.
- the monthly premium;
- the deductible;
- whether there’s a coinsurance period (where your plan covers just a percentage of expenses) after your deductible is met;
- the out-of-pocket maximum – the amount you spend before the plan kicks in at 100 percent;
- services covered; and
- exclusions and limitations.
“There are always exclusions to every policy,” Minoux says. “That’s that really, really fine print.” Check out the services most important to your own situation. Do you have high prescription costs? Are you planning a pregnancy? Are there health problems in your family?
When budgeting, consider your plan’s premium, deductible and out-of-pocket maximum. If the deductible is high, it makes sense to set up a Health Spending Account (HSA). These allow you to put aside a tax-free payroll deduction (up to $3,050 per year per individual, $5,000 per family) to spend on health care that your policy doesn’t cover. “You’re going to spend health-care dollars,” says Minoux. “You might as well pay that pre-tax if you can.”
With good insurance planning, a well-resourced medical home and your family’s annual visits marked on your calendar, you’ll likely use fewer of those health-care dollars – and have a healthier 2010.
Christina Elston is a senior editor with Dominion Parenting Media.
Where Can You Find...
Adult and child vaccination schedules – Head online to cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/ for schedules from the national Centers for Disease Control.
Information on tracking your family’s health history – Check out the Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative, online at hhs.gov/familyhistory/.
Help for quitting smoking – ceasetobacco.org.
A board-certified family physician – Head online to the American Board of Family Medicine at theabfm.org/.
Information on adequate health insurance coverage – Visit the Foundation for Health Coverage Education online at coverageforall.org.