A common sense guide to when you should consult a doctor

29th November, 2019 • 4 min read

Healthcare would be far more efficient if we could just get rid of the patients. So goes the punchline of an old doctor’s joke.

However, at the heart of the punchline is an uncomfortable truth.

Every year, millions of us visit a doctor or accident and emergency department with minor health problems that we could deal with ourselves.

The UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has advised patients to ask themselves 3 questions before booking a doctor’s appointment:

Can I?

  1. Self-care
  2. Use NHS Choices or a similar reputable online resource
  3. Seek advice or treatment from a pharmacist

The problem at the heart of modern healthcare systems is we’ve become reliant on seeing a doctor to reassure us and give us guidance.

According to a House of Commons report, 38% of people who visit an accident and emergency department leave after receiving nothing more than advice and guidance.

But why shouldn’t we seek reassurance from trained professionals when we’re feeling anxious? Most people don’t have a science degree or understand the statistical likelihood of their symptoms being something serious.

Dr Phil Hammond, the doctor and comedian, contends that 90% of symptoms get better over time and more than half are medically unexplained. In essence, most ailments cure themselves, but how do you know you haven’t got the 10% that don’t?

People also differ in how seriously they rate symptoms. As Dr Hammond points out, a sore throat for a truck driver is annoying but for an opera singer, it’s devastating.

The bottom line is that everyone’s health beliefs, perceived vulnerabilities and pain thresholds vary, and doctors spend much of their lives listening and providing information and reassurance.

But according to Professor Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the RCGP, ‘up to a quarter of appointments could be avoided or sorted out by other means’.

So how do you decide when to consult a doctor?

Well, first of all you can use

to assess your symptoms and get access to trustworthy health information and vetted products and services. But to help, here is a common sense guide to when to consult a doctor and when to stay at home.

Obvious emergencies

Things that happen suddenly and involve the loss of something require immediate medical attention. If you lose your speech, vision or ability to breathe go straight to your nearest accident and emergency department. The sudden onset of severe acute abdominal or chest pain will also require investigation. Likewise, the following should all be dealt with immediately: bone breakages, head injuries, suspected poisoning, drug overdoses, heavy bleeding or if you’re vomiting blood.

Things you should see a doctor about

Consult a doctor for any of the following:

  • lumps, especially hard irregular ones in the testicles, neck or under the arms
  • bleeding (coughing it, vomiting it, peeing it, pooing it)
  • shortness of breath and all breathing difficulties
  • delusions and hallucinations (e.g. hearing voices)
  • unexplained blackouts
  • unexplained loss of weight or appetite
  • any problem with urination
  • pus from any sores on the penis or vagina
  • unexplained changes in bowel habits
  • muscle weakness and clumsiness
  • slurring of speech
  • suspicious moles (changes of size, shape, colour, texture, and bleeding or itching)
  • feeling unwell after travelling abroad
  • troublesome symptoms that continue for longer than a week
  • persistent feelings of anxiety, depression or self-harm

Things you should see a pharmacist about

Consult a pharmacist for any of the following:

Some pharmacies also provide:

  • truss fittings
  • stoma products
  • incontinence supplies

Things you can do yourself (self-care)

If you feel unwell, before you book an appointment with a doctor there are things you can do to help yourself. These include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • staying hydrated
  • taking medication such as ibuprofen for any pain or a temperature

It’s reasonable to contact a doctor after 48 hours if there’s no improvement or your temperature exceeds 40C.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.