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Memoirs of a Healthcare Dropout

By Owen C. Franklin

"I pulled my crumpled health insurance card from the bowels of my wallet it was basically a tablet of hieroglyphics."

For most of my life, I harbored a secret envy for people who could work the health care universe. Certain people, it seemed, possessed an arsenal of general practitioners, ophthalmologists and physical therapists. At any given time, these people could call upon their agents to perform health-affirming ceremonies and dispense life-giving elixirs.

I, on the other hand, stopped getting physicals my freshman year of high school. I went for nearly a decade without seeing a doctor. I couldn't point out the nearest hospital if I was standing in its driveway with a broken finger.

When was everyone else embraced by the welcoming arms of health care culture? How did I get left behind?

Luckily, The Commonwealth Fund, a philanthropic giant, helped to answer my questions and quell my insecurities. The Fund coordinated a study that suggests why people like myself just don't go to the doctor. According to the study, my Y-chromosomes are to blame. Men, it seems, just don't manage their health as well as women.

What are little boys made of?

The study blames a list of factors for my gender's medical illiteracy.

First, there's the whole macho thing — men must be strong, men must be stoic, men can't ever fall victim to such sissy issues as hepatitis, blah blah blah. Now, I realize that many men would rather admit to grave robbing than to physical weakness, but that doesn't explain why I haven't worn a paper gown since my teens. I don't personally feel limited by my testosterone. Sure, I enjoy a good James Bond film, but I also thought Meryl Streep offered a stunning performance in The Prince of Tides.

So if I'm willing to explore my "feminine side," why haven't I been willing to explore the waiting room of a health care clinic?

The Fund's study helped me figure that one out. Basically, I haven't had any impetus to interrupt a perfectly good day and waltz my way to the doctor.

Women, however, get a gift-wrapped reason to seek health care before they can even drive a car. OB/GYN visits begin in the teenage years and punctuate much of a woman's lifetime. During these meetings, women are free to inquire about other health concerns, and forge connections to other corners of health care.

I realize that few women cherish pap smears and speculums. As a male, however, I feel somewhat slighted. Since puberty, my female friends have been learning the intricate language of the health care universe. Today, they know the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist, while it's all Greek to me.

This was a problem I understood. This was a problem I could solve. I was not going to let the handicap of my gender hold me back any longer. I was going to visit a doctor.

Starting from scratch

First, I needed to find one. I pulled my crumpled health insurance card from the bowels of my wallet — it was basically a tablet of hieroglyphics.

I turned to a female colleague, assuming she knew how to decipher this babble.

"How do you find a doctor?" I asked with as much nonchalance as I could muster.

She paused. Her eyes moved skyward. She looked at me with skeptic sympathy.

"Well . . . I've always gotten a referral," she said. She used the tone I chose when offering directions to tourists.

Referrals — one of those coveted benefits of the secret health care club. I wanted in.

Shooting blind

My only point of entry, I learned, was the tome which listed the health care providers covered by my health insurance plan. I opened the book to an arbitrary page and was floundered with names, specialties, credentials and medical groups. I was in far, far too deep.

But suddenly, my eyes latched on to a familiar name — "Einstein." I read his specialty — "Internist."

"What does an Internist do?" I asked my colleague. "Would an Internist make a good G.P.?" I had learned from a female friend that G.P. stood for General Practitioner.

"They cover a broad range of adult medicine topics," she said. "You want one."

I'm a smart man. I realize that Dr. Einstein is most likely of no relation to Albert Einstein. Still, that name was my only beacon. So I picked up the phone and tried to book an appointment with Dr. Einstein.

The receptionist first told me that Dr. Einstein was not accepting new clients. She then asked if I would be interested in seeing a physician with Dr. Einstein's practice. Feeling as though this woman was the best guide I could access, I agreed. I felt I was close.

But suddenly, the receptionist threw me a curve ball. Dr. Einstein's practice was not part of the medical group my insurance covers. I had no idea what she meant.

But this woman, who could pose such a challenge to my plight, became my savior. She told me to look at my insurance card and find the field marked "Medical Group." I did this. She then instructed me to only contact providers who were listed as part of that group.

I went out on a limb.

"Do you know of any good providers covered by my group?"

She sighed — or maybe she laughed. She suggested I find a large practice with many physicians that offer many services. This, she said, could be done by looking for an address that pops up over and over again.

Honing in

It was fairly easy to find a large practice. I called the receptionist and asked, with experienced savvy, if any physicians within this practice were accepting new clients. The receptionist named one — an Internist.

I took a tip from a female friend and asked a sophisticated question.

"Where was he trained?" This was the ace I'd been waiting to play.

The receptionist asked me to hold. As I enjoyed some easy listening, I pictured him swimming madly through files, asking anyone to help him answer the mind-bending questions of his all-too-well-informed caller.

"He went to Harvard and Stanford," he said.

I was satisfied, and booked the earliest available appointment — which was three and a half weeks later. The wait, compared to the effort, would be easy to endure.

The pump is primed

I knew that this was not the end of my journey, but I felt I had made a critical first step. Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. For nearly ten years, nothing forced me out of my medical slumber.

But bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. I feel I may soon become addicted to health care, and I plan to capitalize upon every benefit of my health insurance. I'm going to get my eyes checked and my teeth checked. I'm going to seek out as many referrals as the law allows.

For people like myself, namely men who haven't seen a doctor recently except on E.R., I suggest you mount the same hump. We may not see a pressing need to go to the doctor, but it's better to know that there isn't a reason at all.

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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