Health problems are never easy. But they are even more difficult when you have no experience with the American health care system. In some countries, doctors still make house calls, but here in the U.S., it’s more complicated. And if English is not your first language, getting healthy may feel overwhelming.
You can do this. Read our guide to dealing with common health situations with confidence. So you can stay strong for your family.
1. Find a doctor.
In most areas, you have a choice of doctors. For general health care, you need a primary care doctor, or PCP, who can treat routine symptoms and injuries. Most insurance companies offer online tools to help you find a good doctor near your home or job.
Aetna Better Health of New Jersey members, for example, can use the Find a Provider tool. You can filter results by language spoken, handicap accessible, specialty and more. Women may choose a female doctor.
2. Get help in your language
Language barriers can make it hard to find effective medical treatment. If your English isn’t fluent, your doctor may not understand all your symptoms. And you may not understand all the doctor’s instructions. Ask your doctor, pharmacy or insurance company about translation services. For example, Aetna Better Health of New Jersey members can call 1-855-232-3596 (TTY 711) for information about interpretation services, including Braille and sign language.
3. Find transportation to the doctor.
If getting to the doctor’s office is difficult, ask your doctor or insurance company about free or low-cost transportation options. Aetna Better Health of New Jersey members can get help arranging travel through Logisticare.
4. Prepare for your doctor visit.
The day before your visit, write down anything you want to discuss with your doctor, starting with the most important. Include your symptoms, when they began, all your medications (including vitamins and traditional medicines), and your questions and concerns.
5. Answer questions honestly.
When you see the doctor, it’s normal for them to ask about personal issues that can affect your health: diet, sexual activity, relationships, alcohol and drug use, mood, family medical history or the community you live in. Your privacy is protected by law; the doctor cannot discuss your health information with anyone without your permission. You can get help to quit smoking, or with drug and alcohol use, through Aetna Better Health of New Jersey.
If you need emotional support, your doctor can recommend a counselor and other mental health resources. Counseling and needed medication are covered through Aetna Better Health of New Jersey.
Even if your doctor doesn’t ask, make sure to offer information about any traditional medicines or treatments you receive, such as herbal tonics or compresses. Some can interact with prescription drugs.
6. Get the information you need.
It’s good for you to ask questions, express doubt, make your own medical decisions and expect good communication with your doctors and nurses. Don’t be afraid to find another doctor if you don’t feel comfortable with your first choice.
Consider bringing a loved one to your visit to take notes. Many doctors allow a guest or two in the exam room. A second set of ears can help you gather the information you need about your diagnosis and treatment.
7. Learn what to do between appointments.
Ask your doctor what the best way is to get in touch ― phone, email or online patient portal ― in case you have a question or problem. Your insurance company can also help you find out more about a diagnosis or treatment.
8. Manage your medications.
Contact your doctor if you experience side effects (unpleasant symptoms) from a new prescription. Often, your doctor can lower your dose or change the drug. You can also discuss side effects and alternative drugs with the pharmacist where you pick up your medication.
Talk to your doctor before stopping any medication. Some prescription drugs take weeks or months before you feel better. And a drug designed to offer long-term benefits ― by lowering cholesterol or blood pressure, for example ― may not make you feel any different in the short term. That doesn’t mean it’s not working.
Generic and brand name prescription drugs are covered through Aetna Better Health of New Jersey. Even over-the-counter drugs may be covered if you ask your doctor for a prescription.
9. Be proactive about your health.
According to the World Health Organization, 80% of chronic diseases are preventable. That means eating fresh foods, exercising and not smoking really do help prevent disease. Rod K., who came to America from the Philippines as a young man, says his family back home “didn’t have the same kind of healthy habits that you do in more developed countries.” After he suffered a stroke at 56, he wished he’d taken better care of himself.
Take advantage of preventive visits and tests. It’s normal to see your doctor at least once a year, even if you’re not sick. This is called preventive care, something that isn’t well known or available in some communities. Many insurance companies offer free preventive care visits and tests. For example, Aetna Better Health of New Jersey covers checkup visits, dental care, eye exams and glasses, and important health tests such as mammograms.
Health care gets easier with every appointment. The more you understand about how the system works, the more you realize that your doctors are there to help you.
Maureen Shelly is a health and science geek living in New York City.
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