November 22, 2022
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Collage design by Ryan Hamsher; photograph provided by Stefanie Remson
Welcome to From Practitioner to Patient, a column by Stefanie Remson about living with arthritis. Stefanie is both a nurse practitioner and a patient living with RA. She’s here to share what she’s learned from her own experiences as a patient and to demystify the medical side of navigating arthritis through her knowledge as a nurse practitioner.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or another chronic illness, you know that your condition does not slow down just because it’s the holiday season.
But you may have noticed that your healthcare does slow down. It’s sometimes easy to forget that doctors, nurses, and medical staff are humans that have families and celebrate holidays, too.
As a medical professional, I do everything in my power to prepare for being away from work, but I understand when things are unavoidable. Having RA myself, I also have personal medical needs during the holidays.
I’m here to share my experience from both positions — and suggest my best tips to navigate some common healthcare challenges during the holidays.
As a medical professional, and a patient with RA, I am often torn between resting with my family at the holidays and upholding my oath to serve my patients. I hope I can help you feel supported to enjoy the celebrations.
With everyone wanting to spend more time with their loved ones around the holidays, this can often lead to short staffing at most medical facilities.
Not only are the most experienced medical professionals usually off during this time, but that also includes the people that do essential jobs that you don’t always directly see. This means the people who clean the building, work in medical records, and answer the phones might be taking time off, too.
If you can schedule appointments before or after the holidays, this is always best. If you need healthcare during this time that cannot be rescheduled, that’s OK, but be prepared to wait a little longer for certain services and expert consultations.
I know that waiting for an appointment when you are expecting test results or having new symptoms can be extremely exhausting and frustrating. I’ve been there. But try not to panic. Remain vigilant of your symptoms and note them down for when you are able to see your doctor.
This wait can bring up more emotions, so consider bringing a family member or friend with you to an appointment for support. And of course, if you need to contact a medical professional, outpatient clinics will typically have an after-hours or on-call number you can contact. If they don’t, or if you need emergency care, you can call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
Cold and flu and any other seasonal illnesses can often make healthcare services busier than at other times of the year.
If you have RA or another chronic illness, stay well this holiday season by getting your recommended vaccines, practicing good handwashing, and being conscious of touching your face and mouth, especially when in public.
If telehealth services are available, consider using them when seeking care to avoid transmitting infections. But remember, if you need to seek medical care urgently, a telehealth appointment might not be appropriate. You should then be seen in person.
When celebrating, people can forget to put food back in the fridge, check internal temperatures when cooking, and may cross-contaminate foods by mistake. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide these tips for food safety during the holidays.
But this can feel difficult to put into practice when everyone is celebrating. I find that dedicating one person to food safety for the evening helps — similar to a designated driver.
If you do find yourself with symptoms of food poisoning, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after ingesting food, remember to sip fluids and rest as much as possible. This is usually self-limiting, which means it will resolve on its own within a day or two.
If you have symptoms for more than 7 days or have dizziness, low blood pressure, or blood in your urine or stool, seek emergency medical attention.
Celebrating can include high fat and high salt meals with more alcohol than usual. These foods, combined with sleep deprivation, can often lead to decreased immunity and illness.
There’s even a phenomenon called holiday heart syndrome to describe how our heart health is affected during the holidays.
One study from 2018 found that heart attack risk spiked by 15% during Christmas and New Year holidays. The risk also increased after New Year’s Eve and other midsummer holidays. And it was particularly pronounced in those over age 75.
Check out these hacks for heart-healthy holidays.
In 2014, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that 64% of people with mental health conditions feel worse around the holidays. And in 2021, a survey showed that 3 in 5 Americans thought the holidays negatively impacted their mental health.
If you’re feeling depressed around the holidays, you can find some great resources from NAMI.
Remember that you’re not alone
If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide or self-harm, help is available with these resources:
RA, as well as other chronic illnesses, can be costly to manage.
Around the holidays, it’s especially important to be aware that most U.S. health insurance deductibles follow a calendar year schedule and reset on January 1st. So, people can rush to get their covered screening exams, prescriptions, and office visits done before the end of the calendar year.
This can mean health services are even more swamped.
To prevent getting caught in this rush, take some simple steps to plan ahead. Check your medications for available refills. If you anticipate needing refills, be sure to call a few weeks ahead of the holiday.
Make a list of other things you need addressed prior to the new year, too. This might include updated referrals, signatures on paperwork, and lab work orders.
Remember, your deductible is different from your premium, and you can find answers to other questions like that here.
The slower, laid-back attitude around the holidays can sometimes decrease productivity in all realms of business and life. People can put off getting healthcare services to enjoy celebrations and be with their loved ones.
But if you have something serious that needs addressing over the holidays, speak up. And don’t be put off if you need to reach out a few more times than usual at this time of the year.
Remember, medical professionals working during the holidays are likely working extra hours. So, always be respectful and polite. It will go a long way.
Whether you have RA or another chronic condition, the holidays can be a difficult time to access healthcare for a number of reasons.
Try to keep yourself healthy over the holidays to prevent encountering additional healthcare challenges, but always remember that there are services available if you need them.
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