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Tony Harris goes to the doctor

By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent
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CNN's Tony Harris heads to the doctor
  • CNN anchor Tony Harris couldn't remember the last time he'd had a checkup
  • He needed to tell his doctor more about his family history
  • Men are 24 percent less likely than women to have visited the doctor within the past year

(CNN) -- I should have known I was in for trouble right from the start.

Ever since his 50th birthday last year, I'd been urging CNN anchor Tony Harris to go to the doctor for a checkup. Our conversations usually went something like this:

Me: Tony, you just turned 50. Have you been to the doctor for a checkup lately?

Tony: What exactly do you mean by lately?

Me: Well, when was the last time you had a checkup?

Tony: Is that a trick question?

It turned out Tony couldn't remember the last time he'd had a checkup. He visited the doctor for the occasional sinus infection, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd sat down with his doctor and talked about preventive health, planned what screening tests he needed at his age, or reviewed his personal or health history with his physician.

Read more Empowered Patient

Tony was doing that typical guy thing, avoiding going to the doctor until he was miserable. According to data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, men are 24 percent less likely than women to have visited the doctor within the past year.

So I felt triumphant when Tony made an appointment and actually showed up on the big day.

I met him there, and to his great surprise I stopped him as he walked through the door.

"Not so fast," I told him. "Before you go in, have you thought through what you want to get out of this appointment?"

He was a bit perplexed.

"Tony, do you go to business meetings unprepared?" I asked him.

"I do not," he answered.

"Well, think of this as like a business meeting," I said, adding there was no business more important than taking care of his health.

"Or think of it this way. I know this appointment is free for you, since I have the same insurance you do, but pretend you're paying $500," I said. "In that case, you'd really want to make sure you get your money's worth and come out with answers to your questions."

I asked Tony to write down his top three concerns and any questions he had for the doctor. I gave him a pen and paper to write them down and record the doctor's answers.

This writing down part is important, because it's easy to get flustered and forget your questions once you're inside the examining room.

Sherrie Kaplan, associate dean at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, tape-recorded people at doctor's appointments and found on average, patients asked only five questions during the entire appointment, and that included queries such as "where's the restroom?" and "do you validate parking?"

Kaplan says she thinks there are so few questions for several reasons. First, you're not at your intellectual best when you're sick or concerned about your health.

Second, the average length of a doctor's appointment these days is 13 minutes, according to the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, and Kaplan says rushed doctors often give off vibes that they don't really want to entertain questions.

"When the doctor asks at the end of the visit if you have any questions, he's looking at his watch and the waiting room is full of people, so you know the answer is 'No,' " she says.

Tony told me he was ready to ask questions, and his No. 1 concern was making sure he was up on all his screening tests, such as a colonoscopy. He also wanted to know if his weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels were OK. Three, he needed to tell his doctor more about his family history.

In Tony's case, that family history part is especially crucial.

Tony's father had the first of several heart attacks when he was in his 40s, and died of a heart attack at age 59, just eight years older than Tony is now.

During his appointment, Tony detailed his family history and, consulting his yellow pad of paper, asked the doctor his questions. He came out with all questions answered, feeling like an empowered patient.

The bottom line: It was time for a colonoscopy (he actually should have had one last year), and the doctor would take a look at his cholesterol test when the results came back.

I had one post-game comment for Tony, and it was a bit of a downer. Tony's physician was satisfied with his blood pressure of 122/82, but I let Tony know that a quick internet search would reveal that the National Institutes of Health considers this prehypertension.

Given his father's health history, I commented to Tony he might want to keep in mind that he could consider getting a consultation from a preventive cardiologist.

And I promised to show up at that appointment, too.

CNN's Sabriya Rice contributed to this report.