Monday, June 2, 2014

Money well wasted? (medical version)

This past month, I blew a bunch of money on un-necessary medical tests to confirm what I already knew:  I'm fine.  But the whole experience raises a lot of questions in my head:  how much money should a person be willing to dole out just to be "on the safe side"?

Here's the background info.  Last year about this time, I started feeling short of breath.  Now, I had run a marathon in March, and I was starting up my bicycle training, so "short of breath" didn't mean I was out of energy or anything; it was just that when I was sitting quietly, I noticed sometimes I had to make a conscious effort to breathe deeply.  I decided to check it out with my doctor, who said she figured it was probably pollen allergies.  She suggested I take allergy meds, but she also offered to get me a chest X-ray to rule out [goodness-knows-what].  In my true Miser-Mom way, I declined the chest X-ray and went for the allergy meds.  Those little drugstore pills worked all the way through pollen season, and then I went back to being a normal medication-free person.

Fast forward to May 2 of this year (pollen season lying heavy on us again).  My left ear got stopped up for a day, and then it started ringing.  After a week of ringing ears, I decided to visit my doctor to get my head checked out.  She was breezy about the issue ("this type of thing is always just ear wax") until she actually looked in my ear.  Then she said, "Uh, oh; this isn't good.  There's no ear wax at all."

She got really somber and started all sorts of other tests (mostly checking to see if I had symptoms of a brain tumor, like blurry vision or delayed reflexes).  Seeing none of the scary brain-danger signs, she said, "we'll try antibiotics first.  You'd like to do that before you do an MRI, right?"  I agreed.  But then she also said, "and I think you should see an audiologist.  I know you're frugal, and so am I.  But if it were me,  I'd see an audiologist; wouldn't you?"  And so I agreed.

After the week of antibiotics, the ears were still ringing.  So I went to the audiologist, who did her tests, and who pronounced my hearing "above average" and said she couldn't see anything wrong with me.  "Sometimes ears just ring; we don't know why".  And shortly after this visit, when the pollen started dying down a bit, my ears recovered.

So, that's the background story.  I spent a bunch of money to have a bunch of doctors tell me "you're fine"; if I had just waited a month I wouldn't have spent any money and I would have been just as fine.

Now, there are a few reasons why I was willing to spend this money.  First of all, having allergies is completely new to me.  (My running buddy TL tells me, "You know; it's kind of reassuring to know you actually have human weaknesses.  I mean, you pull a pair of used shoes out of somebody's trash pile and run a marathon in them, and never get injured.")  So I don't have much experience with illness, and I don't -yet- have a tradition of waiting until June for nasty symptoms to disappear.

Second of all, this is the time of year that my daughter's father discovered --- too late --- that what he thought was just a cough was in fact stage 4 renal cancer.  And as much as I don't mind toughing it out on my own behalf, I feel compelled to make sure my daughter doesn't have to deal with yet another out-of-the-blue horrid illness.

The short version is, I guess I did the right thing.  Maybe.  But I also feel like my body is crying "wolf" on me.  I feel like I ought to know better -- I'm training for a friggin Ironman Triathaon, for goodness' sake!  So all the questions that the doctors have to ask about diabetes and high blood pressure, being overweight or smoking, etc make me realize how completely healthy I really am.  I'm danged if I'm going to make May into my annual "worry-the-doctor" ritual in future years.

Here's an even more expensive way to look at this issue.  The wealthier I get, the more I am able to practice the notion that frugality isn't just about not spending *my* money frivolously; it's about not spending *anybody's* money frivolously.   So when my doctor says, "Insurance will cover that", I don't think that lets me off the hook --- I still need to make my own judgment about whether the cost is worth it.  From this point of view, my little ear-panic wasted my community's resources to the tune of something like $300.  Doesn't that make waiting just one month before bugging my doctor seem all the more reasonable?


  1. There's a lot of arguments that $300 to investigate if something is cancerous or not *is* a good use of money, even if it's not cancerous. Cancer does stuff like metastasize, and you can get it even if you have a super healthy life-style. We pay for all sorts of insurances hoping we'll never use them. And it's not like you didn't try some other stuff before getting the test done.

    Btw, if you want to spend even more money, we're in LOVE with our Austin Air Filter. It makes life worth living during allergy season, at least when we're within its filter radius.

    1. Well, the fact that I went and got this all checked out shows I agree with you! Especially for the scenarios where (as here) something out of the ordinary happens. Also, where you know you're at high risk (my mom and maternal grandmother both had breast cancer, and so I take my yearly mammogram seriously).

      But when the same breathing/ear thing happens next May . . . you know, that's when I'm going to just wait until June before I start panicking.

      And, alas, air filters wouldn't work well for us because we (a) spend massive amounts of time out of doors during the day, and (b) have no air conditioning, so we blow outside air through our home every night when we ARE home. But I am glad to know it works for you! -MM

    2. In this case it was a new symptom. Next year if a third symptom appears, well you still don't know for sure what it is.

      It's good to ask what the risks of waiting are.

      I'm glad your doctor gets that you're frugal, even with other people's money. (Me, too.)

    3. Our allergy weeks aren't during a/c season, and we're in no condition to go outdoors when they happen. (Allergy medications work just fine for me, but they've been contraindicated for a good portion of my time here because of pregnancy or nursing, and DH hasn't found one yet that keeps him from being miserable and useless.)

    4. Oh, that makes sense actually. I'll keep this in mind for the future. -MM