How to lower your medical costs

Going to the doctor can be an expensive endeavour, especially taking into account that you are most likely going to have to buy some medicine after the visit, and maybe even go back for a second consultation, finds Ashleigh Brown.

South Africa, like most countries, is challenged by ever-rising healthcare costs, which consume approximately 9% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Healthcare costs are not likely to drop anytime soon as commentators suggest the need for increased spending on doctors, drugs, and hospitals. This is according to Dr Bobby Ramasia, chief principal officer of Bonitas Medical Fund.

Self-care to lower costs 

Self-care refers to the measures you take for yourself every day to stay healthy and take care of minor or long-term conditions. This is done based on your own knowledge, available information and, if the need be, professional advice.

If you do things that will boost your health this can also save you money in the long run.

Self-care involves making healthy lifestyle choices such as getting enough exercise, healthy eating, responsible self-medication and avoiding risky behaviours like smoking.

“Studies show that there is a dire shortage of doctors in South Africa. People with effective self-care behaviour and knowledge are able to make confident decisions about their health and do not visit their doctor unnecessarily,” says Allison Vienings, executive director of the Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA).

Vienings says that by taking care of yourself, it has an immediate impact on your health, as well as your wallet.

“The benefits of increased self-care to society are empowered patients with higher self-esteem, improved wellness, longer life expectancy and the cost saving (both public and private) resulting from the reduced use of healthcare services,” says Vienings.

Over the counter (OTC) medicines

Many OTC medications are available at supermarkets. Medications such as headache tablets, vitamin pills and antacids are generally much cheaper at the supermarket than they are from the chemist, as the supermarket buys these pills in bulk.

When buying medicine, consider generics because they are cheaper. And there’s usually no difference in composition as they generally have the same active ingredients as the original brand, but without the brand name.

Many schemes already insist that you use generics, unless there’s a medical reason not to do so. If you are unsure, ask your doctor or pharmacists, or check with your medical scheme for approval.

“By being vigilant about making healthy lifestyle choices, using all medicines responsibly, recognising when you do need to see a doctor or if speaking to your local pharmacist or nurse is sufficient, and using self-monitoring and self-management, you will reap the benefits of self-care – both health-wise and financially,” she says.

Vienings emphasizes that most OTC medicines are available only in a pharmacy and a pharmacist is always on hand to offer professional advice.

Day clinics and state centres

You can visit day clinics or state medical centres to lower costs too. But there are downsides as they are generally open during the day, and not normally on the weekends. Also, the queues  can be long.

However, , if you just want to talk to a nurse or an on-call doctor about something, then these are great places to go.

Most clinics also offer flu shots, family planning options, and various other basic medical needs. They will also be able to refer you to a doctor, or specialist, if the care you need falls outside of their skill set.

List of day clinics in your area:

Calling the doc

If you just have a scratchy throat, or maybe are feeling a little sluggish, then save yourself the time, and money and just give your doctor a call.

Remember though, that they are busy people and so you might have to leave a message for them to call you back.

Though, this is a good way to find out if you really do need to come in to see them, or if you can just go to the pharmacy for some medicine.

Some organisations also offer free advice. Click’s Baby Club Facebook page has a paediatrician that offers free advice every Friday, for example, and if you have time to wait for a response you can also pose a question to Media24’s health professionals. For more on this and cheaper alternatives, check out Justmoney’s article here.

There are various different ways to save money on your medical bills. But, don’t try to cut the costs by putting your health at jeopardy. At the end of the day, your health is more important, and if you ignore any symptoms, you could end up paying even more in specialist bills.

Remember to also go over your medical aid, and make sure that you are paying for what you need. If you need to down-scale your plan, or change to a different provider, then weigh up to the pros and cons of each. Everyone’s medical needs are different, and so make sure you get exactly what is best for you.