Have you ever given much thought of what being healthy actually means to you? Would you consider yourself healthy? How do you know for sure? Is health merely the absence of disease or symptoms, as suggested by any standard definition? The problem with this definition is that the mere absence of symptoms does not automatically equate to being in a state of optimal health and wellbeing. This begs the ultimate question…
Are you really healthy until you’re not?
Having had the privilege of seeing patients from all wakes of life and in various clinical settings, I’ve learned something so incredibly profound about human health that I could never have attained from any medical textbook.
There is no such thing as one standard definition of health.
Due to the eclectic array of core values and beliefs humans possess, it seems everyone has their own definition of what being healthy means to them. On several occasions, for example, I’ve met patients that deem they are perfectly healthy yet they’re on a cholesterol lowering medication for their high cholesterol. Hypercholesterolemia is a condition that is defined by higher than normal blood cholesterol levels. This may or may not require the use of medications as a form of treatment. The simple fact that someone’s cholesterol is maintained at lower levels while on a cholesterol lowering medication does not mean this person is not suffering from an underlying condition that puts them at risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Sure, the medication may lower the risk, but their risk is still higher than someone who does not have the underlying condition in the first place. Similarly, if someone is experiencing sleep apnea or is overweight but is otherwise functioning, could they really consider themselves healthy? How about someone who experiences heart burn but controls it with medication? And so on. To some people then, perhaps anything short of being 6 feet under means they are healthy.
Aside from individual definitions of what good health means to them, in western medicine the annual physical exam is regarded as the standard measure of health, but
Is your annual physical exam really the crème de la crème measure of good health?
In my professional opinion, there’s no question that an annual physical exam with basic labs can be an invaluable asset in keeping track of your health, however it can also backfire by giving people a false sense of their health status. What happens when your doctor finds nothing abnormal in your lab work? Does that mean you’re in the clear and therefore in great health? I believe this type of mindset is of grave concern; one which may ultimately mislead people into believing their usual lifestyle habits may be sufficient and thereby continued without reservation. Today’s annual physical exam and basic labs are far too basic in determining one’s level of health, since the focus is primarily on detecting symptoms and abnormal labs, all the while disregarding a critical analysis of one’s lifestyle and daily habits. This in turn pinpoints one of the greatest pitfalls of our medical system; a complete disregard for prevention. It is notable to mention that oftentimes once symptoms are manifested, a disease process has already ensued. Now it’s not only a matter of accurately diagnosing, but moreover of treating the condition. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of treating a condition, we prevented it in the first place?
At this point you’re probably wondering then, what is or perhaps what isn’t included in my annual labs and why exactly are they inadequate?
Typically, your annual exam includes a standard set of tests based on your age, medical history and if you’re on medication or have some disease or medical condition that may need to be followed up, additional tests may be ordered. What many people don’t realize is that doctors don’t test for everything during your annual exam. Comprised of basic labs that include, but are not limited to hemoglobin level, kidney function and electrolytes, how can you know with complete certainty that you’re in good health if the labs are not comprehensive nor inclusive? Even if your labs came back “normal,” it is impossible for your doctor to say with absolute certainty that you’re in good health. What doctors ought to say is, “Based on the standard but limited testing we’ve performed, your labs look good but they are most definitely not comprehensive, so all we know is that you seem to be on track to being in good health.”
The problem is that the standard of care is not enough. We need to improve and raise our standard.
It is important to remember that regardless of the state of our healthcare system and its standards of care, your health is truly in your hands. There are many things you can do to educate yourself regarding the inner workings of your own body and preventive steps you can take to circumvent your risk of developing an illness. In part II of this blog post I will outline some practical tools you can implement in your own life to help you achieve a better understanding of your body’s physical state. I always say that knowledge is the gateway to health. With understanding comes the opportunity for change and transforming the very destiny of your own health.
Remember, health is not simply a destination, but rather it is a lifelong journey comprised of daily habits to which one must continuously adhere. Ultimately, it is the collection of these habits that will determine one’s chance of thriving and surviving.