02/23/2012 04:07 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

The Real Cost of Delaying Your Health Care

Excuses. We all have them.

Who hasn't postponed a doctor's visit until after an important project is completed, time off can be arranged, a big family event is past or some extra money appears in the budget? If you travel -- either for pleasure or business -- you may have another excuse: "I'll see a doctor after I get back home." But upon your return, you get caught up in work, school, family and social events, so your medical appointment gets delayed... again!

Too often, we treat health care as a when-I-can-get-around-to-it matter, but the facts don't jibe with that kind of thinking. Consider the worst-case scenarios. If you miss a work deadline, you may get a chewing out from your boss. If you delay a credit card payment, you'll pay a stiff penalty. You can recover from those setbacks. But if you delay your medical care, you risk losing your capacity to live life to its fullest -- or perhaps to live at all.

Am I exaggerating? Not in the least. Consider that annual physical exam you may be postponing. It usually includes a simple blood test to detect diabetes, an increasingly common disorder that often shows no symptoms. Seven million Americans have diabetes and don't know it; another 79 million are on the verge. The complications of untreated diabetes include heart disease, stroke, blindness, chronic kidney disease, limb amputation and even death. Yet early diagnosis and treatment can control diabetes and prevent those outcomes.

Same story with hypertension (high blood pressure), a common disorder that frequently goes undiagnosed. Its possible outcomes include stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, but simple treatments such as lifestyle modifications and safe, effective drugs can keep blood pressure at normal levels and prevent such dire consequences.

Early detection and treatment are key, too, when it comes to cancer -- mammogram for breast, PSA test for prostate, skin exam for melanoma, colonoscopy for the colon and others. Consider, for example, the humble Pap test for cervical cancer. For women in whom precancerous lesions are detected through Pap tests, the likelihood of survival with appropriate treatment is nearly 100 percent today, says the American Cancer Society.

Even non-life-threatening health conditions deserve prompt attention. Hearing loss falls into that category. A recent report from Johns Hopkins revealed that an estimated 26.7 million Americans age 50 and older have hearing loss, but only about one in seven uses a hearing aid. Procrastinating patients may consider hearing loss a minor matter, but doctors disagree. "Evidence is beginning to surface that hearing loss is associated with poorer cognitive functioning and the risk of dementia," says Hopkins' otologist Frank Lin. Lin and his colleagues are now investigating the effects of hearing aids and cochlear implants on the social, memory and thinking abilities of older adults.

I could go on and on with examples -- dental treatment for gum disease; shots for HPV, flu and shingles; medical and surgical treatments for obesity -- but I think the point is made. We can't afford to let the greatest threat to our health be our own procrastination.

The cure for procrastination is action. Patients seeking care closer to home need only call their local doctor or clinic to stop postponing and start acting to promote their health and well-being.

Travelers have an additional opportunity. If you plan to visit a foreign country, you can easily arrange for a checkup, screening test or much-needed treatment (including devices such as hearing aids) at a fraction of the price you'd pay at home. In a recent blog on the Patients Beyond Borders pages, I listed my top 10 "no-brainer" medical procedures for travelers. They include diagnostic scanning and imaging, health screenings, vision and hearing tests, dentistry, allergy testing and more.

As for excuses, my advice is to put them off until tomorrow. You have your health to take care of today.

For more by Josef Woodman, click here.

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