What my back pain saga taught me about navigating our healthcare system

The sharp and stabbing pain in my back was constant. There was no comfortable position to sleep in.

With each passing week, my irritability increased and my cognitive processing decreased. I missed a much-needed and long-awaited MRI, thinking it was at 7:20 p.m.; it was actually scheduled for 7:20 this morning.

I was told that I would only be able to get this MRI appointment covered by insurance after I tried “other tactics”. I’ve tried Advil, a week of prednisone, a hot pad, cold compress, massage, manipulation, and physical therapy.

Everyone failed – miserably – and the pain sent me spinning.

Our healthcare system is driving me nuts too. At a low point in your life, you must navigate a healthcare maze with few clues and make decisions about what to do while dealing with debilitating pain.

As I reflect on this disastrous experience, I have four tips to share with my fellow patients:

  1. Find a patient advocate. You may not be your own best champion. When you’re half as exhausted as I am, it’s hard to think straight. Find a patient advocate in your hospital system or with your spouse, friend, or children.

  2. Ask questions. Some people hesitate to get a second or third opinion for fear of offending their doctor. Asking questions and gathering multiple opinions is at the heart of patient-centered care and shared clinical decision-making. Do not be shy.

  3. Get in line. Don’t wait until you make your next appointment. You can cancel or reschedule at any time, but getting added to a doctor’s calendar — especially if you need to see a hard-to-find specialist — can mean booking weeks or even months in advance.

  4. Consider all options. Throw the kitchen sink at the problem as each approach has the potential to bring relief. Unable to escape my back pain, I decided to try acupuncture, a treatment not typically recommended by traditional doctors. It’s the only tactic that’s given me relief so far.

Eventually I got my answer: a genetic back pain syndrome and a herniated disc. The diagnosis required another doctor’s visit, who ordered more tests – this time an X-ray that revealed a congenital defect in my vertebrae. I have a treatment plan that along with acupuncture is helping to relieve the pain for now.

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While your doctors are responsible for treating diseases you bring to their attention, the system is fragmented and ultimately you are responsible for your health. take this seriously And maybe check your appointment times again.

Angela K. Shen is a retired US Public Health Service Captain, Associate Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and Senior Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.

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