If Your Doctor is Healthy, You Probably Are Too

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To get their patients up to date on their vaccines and screenings, doctors should make sure they get health checkups themselves.

Actions, it seems, do speak louder than words when it comes to staying healthy. Researchers at the University of British Columbia and in Israel studied health records of 1,488 doctors and nearly 1.9 million patients who were part of Israel’s largest health maintenance organization, Clalit Health Services, which insures over 50% of Israel’s population. They looked at the frequency with which both doctors and their patients engaged in preventative practices including mammagraphy, annual vaccinations, blood pressure checks and colorectal screening.

Doctors who regularly got their check-ups and vaccinations — and passed along this information to their patients — were more likely to have patients who did the same. For instance, among doctors who got their influenza vaccines, about 49% of their patients were immunized against flu, while 43.2% of patients whose doctors didn’t get the vaccine were vaccinated, according to the study, which was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

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“It’s human nature,” says study author Dr. Erica Frank, of the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. “People usually preach what they practice. Personal adoption of a practice suggests that the doctors are sufficiently convinced of the importance of the intervention that they are motivated enough to even do it themselves, and perhaps they’ve figured out how to overcome access barriers that can enable patients, as well.”

While that trend was encouraging, the researchers also found that rates of screening and vaccination among the doctors were still relatively low. That might seem contradictory, since physicians should be fully educated about the benefits of preventive practices from the latest studies, and therefore among the first adopters. But, says Hank, doctors are people too and often too busy to fit in regular health checkups. “While physicians tend to have consistently better primary prevention habits than do patients, we don’t do quite as exemplary a job on our screening practices, largely because of questions of convenience — suggesting that targeting physicians for convenient health promotion could be a very efficient way to improve the health of entire patient populations.”

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Promoting healthier practices among doctors could have a ripple effect on their patients, given the results of the study; if doctors were more vigilant about their own health, that might go a long way toward improving the health of their patients. “The physician screening rates for tests other than LDL cholesterol were less than exemplary and are a substantial health promotion opportunity both for physicians and their patients,” the authors write. Instead of focusing primarily on changing health behaviors of patients, targeting public health messages toward doctors may end up translating into improved health for both groups.