Health Mistakes Even Doctors Make—and How to Avoid Them
Doctors — they're just like us. They have crazy schedules, struggle to balance work and family, prioritize their self-care behind that of the people they care for, and when life gets really hectic, healthy habits like diet and exercise can fall by the wayside.
In other words, like many of us, they know better—but life intervenes anyway. We asked top doctors around the country about the health mistakes they and their peers make, and how you can avoid them. Here's your chance to get healthier than even the healthiest doctor.
They Don't Get Enough Sleep
"Working long hours, sometimes as many as seven days a week is commonplace for physicians," says John Chuback, MD, board certified cardiovascular surgeon and author of Make Your Own Damn Cheese. "Many doctors are on call for their patients around the clock. My father, for example, was an obstetrician, and I don't think he slept through the night once in 40 years."
How You Can Avoid It: "In order to have optimal mental health, one must get 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night," says Chuback. "If not, you'll almost certainly see an adverse impact on your psyche, emotions, and body. Avoid caffeine after noon and try to limit alcohol to one night a week. These are two simple tips that can help you get a restful night's sleep and be at your best during the day."
They Eat Junk
"Anyone who has ever taken a night shift in a hospital has seen enormous trays of delicious delicacies from all over the world, including but not limited to Italian, Indian and Filipino specialties, typically prepared by staff members," says Chuback. "There are often enough donuts, cookies and cakes to fill a bakery. Watching doctors and nurses pile their plates high with eggplant parmesan in the break room at 3 am is not an uncommon site. It has become a cultural norm for the profession. In order to maintain good health, avoid these delicious but calorie dense food orgies."
How You Can Avoid It: "Eat to eliminate simple sugars, bring in complex carbohydrates like whole grains, focus on lean source protein, and include a moderate supply of heart-healthy fats," says Chuback. "We've all see too many fat doctors. In such cases, I suppose we have to do as they say and not as they do."
They Manage Their Own Stress Poorly
"Despite all the negative publicity that medicine has been receiving, doctors are more victims of the problems in the U.S. healthcare system than the causes of it," says Alex Lickerman, MD, a primary-care physician and author of The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness. "They're being forced to see more patients than they can handle, to document more information as required by insurance companies than they have time for, and to rise to a level of perfection expected of no other profession. Most doctors are true caretakers and frequently ignore their own needs to meet the needs of their patients. As a result, they now have more than double and even triple the suicide rate of the general population."
How You Can Avoid It: "Doctors can take steps to help themselves," says Lickerman. "The first step would be to identify their 'must-haves.' That is, what boundaries must remain in place for them to manage their stress successfully? This varies from person to person. Some need to exercise. Some need time alone. Some need to meditate. Some need time with their families. But doctors can't begin to get what they need to manage their stress until they correctly identify what those needs are. A doctor may think he or she needs to exercise to reduce stress, but in fact exercise may not have nearly the stress-reducing effect of getting adequate sleep or time to read or watch movies."
"It's difficult for people to be objective when it comes to their health, even physicians," says Eliza Chakravarty, MD, an immunologist and rheumatologist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. "They often under- or over-estimate symptoms, which is why you need an unbiased evaluation by a health professional without underlying fears or concerns."
How You Can Avoid It: "Go see a doctor. Don't diagnose yourself on the internet. Dr. Google is not a physician."
They Stop Taking Medications Too Soon
"Once people start feeling better, they often stop taking their medicine," says Chakravty. "Whether it's due to cost, difficulty getting refills, or you skipped a dose and forgot to start again, it's important to take the full course."
How You Can Avoid It: "Don't think you're cured just because you feel better. It probably means the medicine is working. If you stop, you might get sick all over again. This is important for all medications, especially antibiotics. For anyone—doctors included—if you want to stop taking a medicine or change dosage, to talk to your health care provider for a strategy that is safe."
They Brush Aside Symptoms
"Doctors never think anything is wrong with them until it's often too late. We often brush aside our own symptoms as 'just passing,' when in fact, they should be evaluated," says Thomas Jeneby, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon and author of the upcoming book Confessions of a Plastic Surgeon.
How You Can Avoid It: Don't wait. Activate. Call a doctor if you're feeling anything out of the ordinary.
They Don't Have Their Own Doctor
"Doctors tend to treat themselves far too often," says Jeneby. "We need an impartial person to catch things we are not looking for ourselves. This leads to delays in diagnosis."
How You Can Avoid It: "If something feels a little 'off,' get it checked out," says Jeneby.
They Go To Work When They're Sick
"Doctors don't always practice what they preach, especially when they're sick," says Monique May, MD, a family medicine doctor in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We always tell the public to avoid work or school when they have a high fever or gastrointestinal issues, but don't always follow that advice ourselves. Whether it be due to a shrinking workforce or the physician's personal guilt about taking time off, doctors sometimes work when they really should be home in bed."
How You Can Avoid It: When you're sick, stay out of the office. Follow May's advice for physicians: "Get flu shots every year and other age-appropriate vaccines, wash their hands frequently, and take time off when they have a fever over 100.4, pinkeye, a stomach bug, pneumonia, the flu, or any other contagious illness."
They Forget To Wash Their Hands
"Speaking of handwashing, as shocking as it may sound, doctors don't always wash their hands between patients," says May. "They may get so busy that they forget. The wide availability of hand sanitizer helps serve as a reminder to clean their hands between patients."
How You Can Avoid It: Handwashing is a crucial way to avoid getting sick. Scrub until you've sung the entire alphabet.
They Avoid Seeing A Doctor
"We only see a doctor when we absolutely have to," says Erum Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and Tory Burch Foundation fellow. "Part of this is because we can manage much on our own, but the other huge part is that our schedules simply do not allow us the time to take care of ourselves. Even taking a break for lunch is a rare event for most of us."
How You Can Avoid It: "I've been noticing that millennials do care more about their personal time, which will be to their benefit," says Ilyas. "By actually taking time out of our schedules to allot to self-care, we could actually practice what we preach."
They're Not Always On A Healthy Diet
"We don't always eat the way we tell our patients to," says Ilyas. "The past 3 to 4 years have opened my eyes to the world of nutrition and the role it plays in our health. Ironically the tipping point that forced me to look at alternative routes to help my patients was the extraordinarily high cost of medications. Cost has been starting to improve for several medications, but fortunately I've found a new respect for diet and exercise. I still have my fair share of Coke Zero to get through a day of 40 to 50 patients, however, the rest of my meals are improving."
They're Glued To Their Screens
"With all the attention that we place telling our kids to minimize screen time, the problem I come across is I simply can't," says Ilyas. "Electronic health records and being on call 24 hours a day means I can never disconnect. Even if I have someone cover a call, I'm ultimately responsible for my patients."
How You Can Avoid It: "I do find that using technology to our benefit here is not a bad thing. Having secure message and email apps keeps us connected without having to actually take a phone call. Many times the process of speaking on the phone and the courtesy of small talk can take away from valuable family time. I love that electronic records and secure messaging has allowed me to spend time while still staying connected."
They Wait Until The Last Minute To Seek Care
"Many patients wait until things don't get better or even get worse before seeking professional help, and the professionals aren't much better," says Thanu Jey, MD, director of Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic.
How You Can Avoid It: "Self-diagnosis isn't ideal for any of us," says Jey. "To avoid potentially making things more complicated, seek out a professional opinion before things can get more complex."
They Don't Get Outside
"Like many office workers, doctors are indoors in their offices and the hospital for large portions of the day. It's easy to forget to get outside and get some sunshine," says Shawn Vedamani, MD, a board-certified physician in San Diego, California. "Almost half of Americans don't get enough vitamin D. Low levels have been linked to cancer, depression and other health issues."
How You Can Avoid It: "Fortunately just a few minutes of sun every day is enough for most people to keep their levels up," says Vedamani. "It's also been shown that exercising outdoors can provide a better boost to your mental and overall health. Something simple such as parking your car further away, or setting an alarm to take an outdoor break, could be all you need."
They Focus Too Much On Symptoms
"One issue I have is physicians focusing too much on symptom management and not enough on healing at a deeper level and getting to underlying causes," says Peter Abaci, MD, medical director of the Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center and author of Take Charge of Your Chronic Pain.
How You Can Avoid It: If you're experiencing common symptoms like headaches or digestive trouble, before accepting a prescription, talk to your doctor about what's going on with your lifestyle and emotional health. Making changes there could help.
They Don't Take Prenatal Vitamins
"We counsel our patients about the importance of prenatal vitamin use during women's reproductive years, because they include folic acid, which is important for a baby's brain and spine development, and the correct amount of vitamin A, which can actually be too high in some multivitamins and dangerous to fetal growth if ingested in too high of a dose," says Ann Peters, M.D., MS, a gynecologist and surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. "Despite knowing their importance, doctors, including OBGYNs, probably forget just as often as patients to use them."
How You Can Avoid It: "I always recommend my patients put their prenatal vitamin with any other medicines they take on a daily basis, such as birth control, for which a lot of women will have reminder apps on their phone," says Peters. "This way, they don't forget to take their vitamins either. Alternatively, putting them in a frequently used location, such as near the fridge or the microwave, can be very helpful as a reminder."
They Don't Have a Primary Care Doctor
"During medical school and residency, time constraints and workload make it nearly impossible for medical professionals to take care of their health maintenance," says Peters. "It's only when an illness affects us that we scramble to navigate the healthcare system to find a doctor. Unfortunately, if you don't have a primary care doctor, it's nearly impossible to be referred to a specialist in an expedited fashion if you do really require medical care — for common day complaints or serious medical illnesses."
How You Can Avoid It: "I recommend that all my patients, young or old, find a family doctor whom they trust and can establish care with," says Peters. "You never know when you'll need to receive care, and you should plan to see your primary care doctor and OB/GYN regularly."
They Don't Reapply Sunscreen
"One health mistake even doctors make is not reapplying sunscreen when outside," says Michelle Lee, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California. "It's critical that sunscreen is reapplied every two hours."
How You Can Avoid It: "Carry sunscreen whenever you go outside," advises Lee. "There are multiple versions of sunscreen that can be applied as a powder."
They Clean Wax Out Of Their Ears
"It is generally not a good idea for people to try to clean wax out of their ears by sticking objects into the ear canal," says Jordan Glicksman, MD, an ear, nose and throat surgeon and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. "There are a lot of products I've seen patients use, ranging from cotton swabs to pins, and this can be dangerous. The skin of the ear canal is very thin and can be easily injured. Additionally it is possible to push too hard and cause an injury to the eardrum, bones, hearing or worse."
How You Can Avoid It: "The body has mechanisms to clear excessive wax naturally, and some products like mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide can soften the wax to make this easier," says Glicksman. "If you find that wax is building up to the point where it is affecting your hearing it is best to see the doctor about it rather than trying to fish it out yourself."
They Don't Eat Enough Vegetables
"Everyone could benefit from more fiber and vegetables in their daily diet," says Allen Conrad, BS, DC, CSCS, owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center.
How You Can Avoid It: "Doctors in Chicago are now recommending eating more vegetables and outdoor exercises as a prescription for pain relief over drugs," says Conrad. "With the opioid crisis causing so many problems with dependence, this is a welcome change toward a wellness concept."
They Eat Fast Food
"I succumb to the fast food trap way more often than I'd like to admit," says Kimanh Nguyen, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist in Los Angeles. "It's just so convenient to stop by a fast casual eatery on the way home from work, because it's the end of a long day, and I know I have a hungry family to feed at home."
How You Can Avoid It: "I'll try to prep for dinner the night before, such as marinating meat and slicing vegetables, and laying any non-perishables out on the counter," says Nguyen. "That's made a big difference in cooking healthy homemade meals for my family."
They Don't Exercise Enough
"One common mistake is not getting enough exercise," says Edna Ma, MD, a board-certified anesthesiologist in Los Angeles. "I am guilty too! My laundry lists of excuses includes, 'I have a full-time job that starts at 6am,' 'I'm a mom of two young kids!' 'Where will I find the time!?'"
How You Can Avoid It: "I've 'created time' for exercise by scheduling a group fitness class in my weekly calendar," says Ma. "On Saturdays, I arrange for child care in the mornings while I work out. Selecting a group class forces me to be accountable for the entire duration of the class. I've also scheduled activities with friends and family centered around a physical activity. For example, when catching up with a friend, we might schedule a hike rather than cocktails."
They Don't Develop Relationships
"Doctors are so tied up in their work that they often neglect the most important relationships in their life," says Anthony Kouri, M.D. an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center. "When we have these, we live longer, healthier lives. However, humans are wired to connect with other humans. Studies have demonstrated that with increasing age, people with strong social connections live longer. This is a strong quality in Japanese culture, and has been attributed as one reason for their longevity. Other studies have shown that never marrying is the strongest predictor of premature death."
How You Can Avoid It: Consider socializing with friends or family as important to your health as exercise or sleep. If you're in a social rut, take classes, join activity groups or join hobby clubs. "Connections, whether through marriage, family, or friendship, provide value and meaning to our lives," says Kouri.
They Don't Listen to the Body's Warning Signals
"Physicians are 'experts' in ignoring and downplaying warning signals that their own body is sending them, leading to poor health," says Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD, a dermatologist and editor based in Kansas City. "These signals include fatigue, various pains, increased sweating, insomnia, shortness of breath, cough, multiple skin spots and growths, nervousness, blood in the stool and indigestion."
How You Can Avoid It: Don't ignore what your body is trying to tell you — get checked out promptly. "Yours truly is trying to pay serious attention to such signals," he says. "As I'm getting more experienced, these signals are shaping my daily activities more and more.
They Ignore The Bladder
"For overall bladder health, it's generally recommended to not hold your urine as over time, as this can result in voiding dysfunction," says Rena D. Malik, MD, director of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "As a busy urologic surgeon, I am definitely guilty of holding my urine and forgetting to urinate for long periods of time. But don't do it! Make time for your bladder health."
How You Can Avoid It: Head to the restroom when nature calls.
They Don't Take the Right Vitamins
"I speak from personal experience that many of us are vitamin deficient and don't realize it," says Arielle Levitan, MD, co-founder of Vous Vitamin. "We're skeptical about off-the-shelf vitamins because of concern about their lack of regulation, safety and long lists of ingredients. We had little-to-no nutritional education in medical school and often preach that eating a balanced diet is the best way to get all the nutrients you need. However, this is not always true. The food supply no longer contains the nutrients it once did. Our soil is demineralized. And there are nutrients that are not obtained from food sources in significant amounts such as vitamin D."
How You Can Avoid It: "Taking the right combination of nutrients in a personalized daily vitamin is the best way to get what you need," says Levitan. Talk to your doctor about what's right for you.
They Inhale Toxic Fumes
"Especially during the hotter seasons, winding down the windows in the car before a commute to work seems almost an automatic response to the heat. What we should really do is use the AC more," says Daniel Atkinson, a GP clinical lead at Treated.com. "Doctors may often find themselves stuck in traffic on their way to work, and it doesn't do too much good to sit among the fumes with the windows wound down. Exhaust emissions from cars can cause problems in the eyes and respiratory tract. Some are also extremely toxic if breathed in. They can create health complications if inhaled over a long period of time."
How You Can Avoid It: "If you commute to work through a city where traffic jams are not uncommon, take a few extra minutes in the morning to let your AC unit cool your vehicle, so you won't need to expose yourself to toxic fumes," says Atkinson.
They Listen to Music Too Loud
"We all like listening to music," says Atkinson. "It's been shown that music can cause our brains to release dopamine, a 'feel-good' hormone that helps make us feel happy. Some people, myself included, tend to enjoy music loud. But when we listen to music through earphones or headphones, we must all be very mindful of volume and how long we expose ourselves to it. It can be damaging to consume music at consistently high volumes."
How You Can Avoid It: "When listening to music, between 60-85 decibels is recommended as the absolute maximum," he says. "If you're listening to music and you think it's probably louder than heavy traffic, which is said to be around 85 decibels, then you should probably consider turning it down."
They Park Too Close to the Office
"After my commute to work, all I really want to do is park as close to my office as possible and get inside and start my day," says Atkinson. "What I should really do is park somewhere slightly further away, and take advantage of the walk. We should always be looking for ways in which we can be more active, and not take the easy route. The benefits of regular exercise cannot be understated. Even in small amounts it all adds up."
How You Can Avoid It: "As a minimum, we should all aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day," says Atkinson. The American Heart Association recommends that for optimum health, adults get 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (such as running, swimming or rowing).
They Do Too Many Kegel Exercises
"Kegels are very important to re-engaging the pelvic floor muscles, but in my opinion, 50 percent of women should not even be doing kegels," says Dr. Chitra Kothari Mittal, PT, MHS, OCS, of Liberty Physical Therapy in Jersey City, New Jersey. "A lot of women that we treat in our facility with pelvic pain, prolapse or incontinence actually have an overactive pelvic floor and kegels make the condition worse."
How You Can Avoid It: If you're having pelvic issues, see your doctor for a full workup. "Biofeedback therapy can be used to measure the resting tone of the pelvic floor and provide an indication of whether something else needs to be addressed," says Mittal.
They Don't Drink Water
"The benefits of staying hydrated throughout the day is indisputable," says Rhonda Kalasho, DDS, a board-certified dentist in Los Angeles. "As doctors we tell our patients to carry water with you and stay hydrated as it ensures physical performance, brain function, maintains kidney health, prevents bad breath, and decreases the chances of headache and fatigue. However, we as doctors, especially ones on their feet all day, tend to forget. Our bodies are 60 percent water, so as you start losing some, you definitely feel it."
How You Can Avoid It: "People should drink an average of 30 ounces to 50 ounces a day, which is about 4 glasses of water," says Kalasho. "To combat dehydration, I recommend carrying a water bottle with you to work. If you can try to drink a liter a day, your body will certainly feel the difference and your skin and hair also begin to display a healthier appearance as well."
They Work in Uncomfortable Positions
"Surgeons are put in uncomfortable positions for many hours at a time, and this can take a toll on their backs," says Christopher Zoumalan, a board-certified oculoplastic surgeon based in Beverly Hills, California. "Whether it's working under a microscope or operating in small areas of the body, these procedures can place incredible strain on the back, particularly the neck. Neck pain is a common symptom that many surgeons experience, and it can result in serious issues if not properly addressed."
How You Can Avoid It: If you work in uncomfortable positions all day, look into ergonomic education. "For instance, they should pay attention to their posture and modify repetitive tasks," says Zoumalan. If you stand all day, sit for a while if you can. If you're primarily seated at a desk, try periods of standing, walking around or having walking meetings.
They Don't Treat Their Stress
"Stress can negatively affect anyone, and doctors undergo stress just like anyone," says Zoumalan.
How You Can Avoid It: "Sleeping well, eating well, and staying fit are key," says Zoumalan. "But I also encourage meditation to ensure mental fitness. Meditation has helped me tremendously, and I do it daily. It cleanses my mind and allows me to function well, live in the present, and enjoy my job."
They Become Weekend Warriors
"We all can fall into the weekend warrior trap," says Thomas Horowitz, MD, a family medicine specialist at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. "We can go for weeks in a sedentary mode and then binge exercise. This can lead to injury, as we decondition in that time between exercising."
How You Can Avoid It: Even if you're swamped, get a little bit of exercise each day. Any physical activity is better than none. And if you're heading back into the gym after time away, listen to your body and don't overdo it. "One must move rationally back into shape for the bigger exercise pushes," says Horowitz.
They Don't Laugh Enough
"Mindfulness is a popular term," says Horowitz, "and the truth is one should never go a day without a few moments to think and laugh."
How You Can Avoid It: According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter relieves stress, releases tension, and stimulates your heart, lungs, muscles and brain. Over time, it can boost your immune system, relieve pain and ward off depression. Consider it as important to your health as diet and exercise.
They Don't Treat Their Depression
"According to the 2019 Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report, 11% of physicians reported feeling down, blue or sad, and 4% were clinically depressed, of which the majority have never sought professional help for their symptoms," says Malik. "There's a multitude of problems that contribute to this, including unrealistic expectations of work schedules and work overload, a culture of sacrificing one's care for that of the patient, stigma associated with psychiatric care and concerns that seeking care may reflect negatively on their medical licensing."
How You Can Avoid It: Sound familiar? If you're having chronic feelings of sadness, irritability, hopelessness, or a lack of enjoyment in previous activities, be open and thorough with your physician about what you're experiencing.
They Don't Take Parental Leave
"In medicine, parental leave is far behind that of major corporations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Netflix, who offer a year of paid support. Most of the top academic medical schools offer 6 to 8 weeks of leave with variable pay," says Malik. "Our recent study found that only one-quarter of surgeons surveyed had leave that was completely paid for by employers. There's a real need for medical institutions and practices to offer parental leave policies that reflect the needs of new parents to improve the ability of parents focus on child development, bonding and mental health."
They Don't Ask Questions of Their Own Doctors
"Oftentimes, doctors as patients fail to ask pertinent questions about conditions and treatments," says D'Wan Carpenter, DO, MS, FAAPMR, a board-certified physical medicine and rehabilitation physician in New Orleans. "I find that many of my patients do the same, only to return for a follow up to admit they did not understand treatment options yet didn't want to call the office for clarity."
How You Can Avoid It: "I recommend quickly jotting down questions or concerns prior to a doctor's visit. This will help eliminate the likelihood of forgetting to ask or not getting concerns addressed."
They Don't Go With Older Parents to Medical Appointments
"When caring for an older parent with a lot of health problems, it's easy to think that you can figure out what's going on with them on your own," says Meghan B. Lane-Fall, MD, MSHP, FCCM, assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
How You Can Avoid It: "It's so much better to make the time to go with them to their appointments so that you can ask the questions you know they will forget," says Lane-Fall.
They Put Themselves Last
"Physicians often skip meals, eat on the go, forget to hydrate, forget to breathe, all in the name of putting the patient first," says Nelli Gluzman, DO, a board-certified pediatrician and the founder of Blossom Pediatrics in New York City. "By 5 pm, we're outright hangry (hungry and angry), our communication suffers, our energy dips, and our souls shrivel. As caregivers, we mistakenly believe that compassionate and excellent care is putting the patient first, and we wear this as a badge of honor."
How You Can Avoid It: "In reality, the best caregiving—whether it be by healthcare providers, parents, teachers, or coaches—can only be achieved when we put our mental, physical, and emotional selves first," says Gluzman.