Spending Ourselves to Death
In 1996, author John Robbins asked readers to imagine a vast, wealthy country where huge numbers of people kept falling off a steep, treacherous cliff. Many were badly injured by the fall. A great number died. Knowing something had to be done, the country’s medical establishment designed the best rapid-response ambulance fleet the world had ever seen. The injured were sped to hospitals where highly paid specialists saved lives with sophisticated, high-tech medical gizmos.
When a small group of concerned citizens came forward and suggested that a fence be built at the top of the cliff to prevent the frequent falls, they were pooh-poohed. Underlying the industry’s veiled ambivalence was greed: When people fell, other people got rich putting them together again. So, while the country funneled more and more money into the medical establishment, fewer and fewer citizens could afford care.
Reads like a scary story doesn’t it? Unfortunately, Robbins’s metaphorical depiction of America’s healthcare crisis – presented in his exposé of the medical industry, Reclaiming Our Health – rings even truer today than when it was first published in 1996.
Spending Ourselves to Death
Over the past few years, the cost of healthcare in the United States has risen markedly. In 1999, healthcare spending topped $1.2 trillion. According to the Center for Studying Health System Change, healthcare spending rose 10 percent in 2001 and triggered an average hike of 12.7 percent in health premiums for employer-provided plans in 2002. In March of 2002, the journal Health Affairs reported that, according to figures from the Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, by 2011 healthcare spending is expected to reach 3 trillion dollars – nearly 17 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
The average worker today pays more than three times as much for health benefits than he did 20 years ago. At the same time, the trend toward healthcare corporatization has reached some ugly new lows. “Among developed countries, the United States is unique in having a substantial proportion of health services delivered by forprofit businesses,” writes Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, in the journal Academic Medicine. “The quality of care is worse in for-profit HMOs, kidney dialysis centers, nursing homes, and hospitals than in nonprofits.”
Nowhere is the growing disconnect between profit and quality healthcare more obvious than in the bulging coffers of drug companies. Today’s pharmaceutical industry is enormously profitable, in large part because every step of a drug’s life is bought and sold – from research trials, to government approval, to prescriptions – in a multi-billion-dollar dance that garners riches for everyone involved, except those for whom the drugs are purported to help: patients.
When it comes to profiting from the sick and dying, someone is apt to get burned. If you want to make sure that someone isn’t you, start taking responsibility for your health now, before it begins giving you serious trouble. Because the only real way to beat the current healthcare system is to do your best to never need it.
How? First and foremost, begin by adjusting your perspective toward that of a fence builder, not an ambulance rider. Rather than waiting for trouble to strike and trusting that someone else will be there to clean up (and pay for) the mess, do everything in your power to build and maintain your health proactively. Strengthen the choices and habits that will protect it for a lifetime. Dare to live outside the passive “feed-me-fix-me” model that is so dominant in our culture, and instead, learn to take courageously good care of yourself – in sickness and in health. Finally, if you are having a hard time acting on directives like these, take a close look at the state of healthcare in this country, and let that be part of your motivation to rise above it.
The philosophical chasm between Eastern and Western medicine largely sums up the crux of today’s healthcare problem. Through the eyes of Eastern medicine, health is seen as a state of both physical and emotional well-being. Being healthy means being in balance and in harmony with yourself and surroundings. Disease is literally a dis-ease or imbalance in the body. Symptoms are hints dropped by the body, like a trail of breadcrumbs, directing us to the source of instability. Practitioners act as gardeners, cultivating life and nurturing growth. Treatment has a dual approach – the physician balances disharmonies and the patient accepts a personal responsibility to adopt lifestyle changes that support healing.
Western medicine occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. Westerners define health as an absence of pain. The emphasis is on man as a machine and doctors as conquerors of Mother Nature. Symptoms are to be suppressed with drugs. Disease is an invader, an isolated attack, something to be rooted out and destroyed. Easy-to-swallow pills and outpatient surgery make lifestyle changes a moot point.
Such a cowboy approach to medicine leaves little for patients to do but surrender to doctors’ orders. This power dynamic between physician and patient is in itself a recipe for disaster, but add profit mongering to the mix and the system very quickly begins to buckle.
“People want easy answers – it’s a cultural dysfunction of the United States,” says Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group based in San Francisco. “Pills look like easy answers. The dysfunction is exploited by the pharmaceutical industry and, at the end of the day, that’s about capitalism.” The controversy surrounding hormone replacement therapy illustrates the point.
Since its inception in the 1930s, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was heavily hyped (by pharmaceutical companies and the doctors they convinced) as a fountain of youth and panacea for the woes of older women, such as heart disease and brittle bones. By the ’90s, Premarin, a synthetic hormone made by Wyeth-Ayerst, was the most widely prescribed drug in the United States. Yet the true benefits of hormones were never clearly established. In Overdose, a book about harmful drug-company practices, a top FDA official is quoted as saying, “The predominant use of Premarin is a practice pattern of American physicians, probably resulting from advertising.”
In early 2002, results from one of the most exhaustive studies ever undertaken on HRT exploded the myth of hormones as a prerequisite for a woman’s healthy aging. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) planned to follow more than 16,000 postmenopausal women in a double-blind trial over eight years. Their goal? To chart the pros and cons of HRT. Half the group downed HRT, while others swallowed placebos. The trial was abruptly halted three years ahead of schedule because of the alarming nature of the preliminary results.
Researchers found that, contrary to everything they’d been told about the benefits of hormones for postmenopausal women, the drugs were doing more harm than good. After years of selling women on HRT as a boon to heart health, researchers discovered that those on HRT were 29 percent more likely than their placebo-popping counterparts to have heart disease and 41 percent more likely to suffer from a stroke and blood clots. More bad news followed when it was discovered that the group on HRT was 26 percent more at risk for invasive breast cancer than those on a placebo.
The study grabbed headlines around the world and sent millions of women storming into physicians’ offices demanding answers. Meanwhile, women’s health advocates steamed. Cynthia Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, called the widespread belief that hormones were good medicine “a triumph of marketing over science.”
“Millions of women took HRT on the advice of their physicians, who honestly believed that the treatment prevented heart disease, the biggest killer of women,” she wrote in response to the study. “HRT doesn’t prevent heart disease; it causes it. Women were placed in the way of harm by their physicians, who acted as unsuspecting patsies for pharmaceutical companies.
“Spinning science has to stop,” she continued. “HRT is not the only therapy being over-promoted by drug companies to healthy people. Pharmaceutical companies have bought physicians, have bought scientists, and have bought clinical medicine. Science must be separated from advertising.”
If one wonders how it came to pass that thousands of doctors routinely prescribed hormones to millions of women without demanding sound, scientific proof of the therapy’s benefits, one need only look to the far-reaching, green-fisted arm of America’s pharmaceutical giants. Take a look at how they operate and it becomes abundantly apparent that the process of bringing new drugs to market has far less to do with saving lives than it does with lining pockets.
Ushering a new drug to market begins with clinical trials. In the not-so-distant past, independent researchers conducted clinical trials at academic research centers. Research universities, although not insulated from industry influences, brought an important degree of intellectual rigor and quality to the process.
Academicians, however, are known for playing by the rules, something that causes much consternation for drugcompany executives. For starters, trial results aren’t always positive, which means bad publicity if the data is published in a medical journal – something academics are apt to do. Secondly, independent academicians like to design unbiased trials that objectively measure the worth of a drug. But with $500 million at stake – roughly the cost of bringing a new drug to market in the United States – pharmaceutical companies are less interested in rigorous academic pursuit than they are in fast, positive results.
Enter the contract research organization (or CRO). As private, nonacademic research groups, CROs do the job faster and cheaper than ivy-tower stick-in-the-muds. Best of all, CROs allow drug companies to control all aspects of the trial process, from how the study is designed to how results are interpreted.
Once CROs were established, it didn’t take long before money began flowing away from public universities and into private labs. By the year 2000, 60 percent of research grants from pharmaceutical companies were awarded to CROs, while only 40 percent went to academic trialists, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Although the Journal editors labeled the terms of most CROs “draconian for self-respecting scientists,” they admitted that many researchers sign on knowing that if they don’t accept the job, someone else will.
Even the country’s esteemed medical journals, once considered bastions of scientific integrity, are not above drug-company bias. As long as pharmaceutical advertisements are the lifeblood of medical-journal budgets, the delicate line between business and editorial will blur. In 2000, the Massachusetts Medical Society ignited controversy by naming Jeffrey Drazen, M.D., as editor-in-chief of its New England Journal of Medicine. Drazen, at the time a leading asthma researcher, had not only pocketed a good deal of drug-company money but had also been reprimanded by the FDA for giving “misleading information on a drug’s efficacy to pump up sales.” Nonetheless, Drazen kept his job and continues to edit the Journal today.
FDA Out of the Way
Of course, regardless of high-profile studies and glowing clinical trials, a drug’s market success is doomed without the FDA’s final stamp of approval. Not the sort to leave this important step to chance, pharmaceutical companies simply stack FDA advisory committees in their favor.
In 2000, an investigative report by USA Today found that at 55 percent of FDA advisory-committee meetings, half or more of the advisors had financial interests in the drug being evaluated. With more than a hint of irony, the authors noted that over the past few years, “the FDA has followed every advisory committee recommendation to approve or reject a medicine – except once.” (The exception was Relenza, a flu drug that was later approved.)
Even when FDA approval is a relatively sure bet, that doesn’t mean a drug is on it’s way to star status. One of the keys to creating a blockbuster drug is getting it prescribed by doctors. Essentially, drug companies must convince doctors to prescribe their products while encouraging patients to ask for it by name.
To this end, pharmaceutical companies employ small armies of salespeople. Lugging roller bags chock full of freebies, drug company representatives spread out into thousands of doctor’s offices each day. As omnipresent in physician’s waiting rooms as outdated National Geographics and fake ficas, drug reps deliver dozens of one- to three-minute sales pitches each day. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of salespeople employed by America’s drug makers more than doubled from 35,000 to 80,000.
“Brand-name drug makers in the U.S. employ 81 percent more people in marketing than in research,” according to a report by Families USA, a healthcare advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. When it comes to luring physicians’ attention, drug samples, coffee mugs, pens, pocket protectors, and golf balls are just the beginning. Many drug salespeople ply doctors with expensive dinners, cruises to the Bahamas and courtside seats to the NBA. Each year, drug representatives spend between $8,000 and $13,000 on every doctor, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although medical leaders are calling upon their colleagues to exercise restraint, relatively few do.
Although getting the message directly to doctors makes up the bulk of pharmaceutical marketing costs, more and more drug companies are now bypassing the doctor’s office altogether by marketing straight to potential patients.
In the past, the FDA required drug makers to include the entire consumer- warning label in drug advertisements. This rule made print ads feasible but television commercials, with their tight time restrictions, were out of the question.
But in 1997, after years of intense lobbying by drug companies, the government eased up. According to new FDA regulations, as long as viewers are told about the drug’s major risks and given a source of more information, such as an 800 number or Web site, pharmaceutical companies can promote their products as much as they’d like. As a result, prime-time television is plastered with drug ads. One report estimated that Americans watching television in late 1999 saw an average of nine prescriptiondrug commercials a day.
The ability to hawk drugs directly to consumers is a boon for drug companies. When Schering-Plough, the maker of Claritin, began its infamous television campaign against allergens in 1998, sales of the allergy drug more than doubled to $2.1 billion. Not to be outdone, the next year, Pfizer sank $57 million into an ad campaign for its competing allergy drug Zyrtec and was rewarded with a 32 percent jump in sales. Meanwhile, that same year, prescriptions for Allegra skyrocketed 50 percent after its parent company, Aventis, spent $43 million promoting the drug. Overall, more than $2 billion was spent on advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers in 2001.
Paying the Bills
As marketing and advertising budgets skyrocket, so do price tags on prescription drugs. In each year from 1997 to 2001, the amount Americans spent on prescription drugs rose nearly 20 percent. Meanwhile, roughly 65 million people nationwide lack insurance coverage for prescription drugs.
Employers are the main source of health insurance for Americans, but how much longer will they be able to foot the bill? According to the Alliance for Health Reform, employer-plan rates will rise up to 15 percent in 2002, and early quotes for 2003 are higher still. The Alliance cites the growing use of prescription drugs as one of the main factors behind the price surge.
Meanwhile, drug companies blame the high price of prescription drugs on rising costs of research and development. Those wonderful lifechanging and -saving drugs, they say, depend on years of expensive clinical work – costs they must recuperate in order to continue innovating. Yet, many critics suggest pharmaceutical research-budget numbers are grossly inflated. A Families USA report found that America’s largest drug companies spent an average of 11 percent of revenues on research and development. That number pales in comparison to the 27 percent of revenues they funneled into marketing, advertising and administration. Even drug-company rosters show the discrepancy. Between 1995 and 2000, brand-name drug makers upped marketing staffs by 59 percent while cutting research staffs by 2 percent.
Getting the Truth
As easy as it is to blame money-hungry drug and device companies, greedy HMOs, ill-informed doctors and corrupt governmentindustry alliances, there are also plenty of people in science, medicine and government doing a lot of good, and who are working hard to improve the sorry state of affairs. There are also plenty of other culprits that stand accused in all this – including us, the American population.
For one thing, we live in a capitalist society that, while it does some things (like innovation and entrepreneurship) brilliantly, also tends to incent and reward some downright dreadful business and investment practices. As long as the pharmaceutical and medical industry is driven by stock profits and shareholder returns, many of these problems are unlikely to go away. They are, to some extent, just hardwired into the larger system – a system from which many of us benefit. Certainly, we can tell our elected officials how we feel about the mess, or we can divest from pharmaceutical stocks we don’t feel good about, but even so, if the history of “healthcare reform” is any indication, we must also prepare for change to come slowly and to take a jagged course.
Fortunately, there is another class of problems about which we can do a great deal and on which we can have a very direct impact. Those problems concern our tendency to be passive and ignorant about our health; our willingness to let social norms, advertising, media and industry influences steer our fate; our eagerness to look for and accept quick fixes; our resistance to acknowledging our role in creating our ill-health; and our slowness to strike out on the healthier, safer paths we know exist, but that seem “too weird” or “too much work.”
The best way to take ownership of your health is this: Make building and preserving your body’s natural vitality a top priority. Instead of focusing on treating disease, focus on prevention through diet and exercise.
If sickness does strike, size up the strengths and weaknesses of various healing systems and decide which best suit your condition. Western medicine is adept at handling acute medical emergencies, preventing the transmission of infectious disease and treating bacterial infections with antibiotics. However, when it comes to dealing with subtler health problems, such as allergies, chemical imbalances, chronic illness or pain, autoimmune diseases and many types of mental illness, an Eastern or naturopathic approach is often a wiser and more self-respecting choice. Most people feel a combination of these tactics – Integrative Medicine – offers the best of both worlds.
Ultimately, each of us has the ability – and responsibility – to build our own fences at the top of Robbins’s metaphorical healthcare cliff. “We need to release ourselves from the belief that our health is primarily dependent on medical technology,” writes Robbins, “and restore our faith in ourselves, in our own minds and hearts, and in the activities that truly generate and protect health.”
As screwed up as the medical system is, there’s no point in just worrying and blaming, feeling bewildered and victimized by it. Instead, as Robbins points out in Reclaiming Our Health, we must remember: “The medical establishment will only get off its pedestal when we get off our knees.”
Health Issue Sites
Sites that provide current information about healthcare industry, health, medical and pharmaceutical issues, including research, politics and industry data.
www.citizen.org/hrg — Reporting from Public Citizen Health Research Group on food, drugs, medical devices, doctors, hospitals, regulatory matters and many other high-stakes individual and political concerns. Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
www.medicalconsumers.org — The Center for Medical Consumers, a nonprofit advocacy organization active in statewide and national efforts to improve the quality of healthcare, provides an information clearinghouse on common surgical procedures and much more.
www.womenshealthnetwork.org — National Women’s Health Network. A consumer advocacy group giving women a greater voice in the healthcare system.
www.nofreelunch.org — An organization of healthcare providers who believe that pharmaceutical promotion should not guide clinical practice, and that overzealous promotional practices can lead to bad patient care.
Alternative and Self-Care Sites
Sites that provide good common-sense direction toward self-diagnosis of common ailments, suggestions for maintaining good health, and guidance on choosing and using alternative wellness-care.
http://nccam.nci.nih.gov/health — Offers general information about alternative and integrative medicine, plus alerts and advisories, guidelines for consumers doing research on the Web, practical information on using alternative therapies (searchable by treatment or condition) plus research and suggestions on selecting an alternative practitioner.
www.consumerreports.org — Information and advice on health products, services and decisions from Consumer Reports® Online.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine — This site offers information on a variety of well-known complementary therapies, including updates on current government-funded clinical trials. The site is a good source for basic health information as well as contraindications between herbs and pharmaceutical medicines.
www.alternative-therapies.com — Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. A peer-reviewed journal and forum for sharing information concerning the practical use of alternative therapies in preventing and treating disease, healing illness and promoting health.
www.mayoclinic.com — Reliable health information provided by experts at the Mayo Clinic. Resources include descriptions, symptoms and treatment options for dozens of diseases; a first-aid guide; and a database of prescription drugs. Create a personal page that feeds you information about your areas of interest.
www.webmd.com — A good source for medical information as well as consumer-oriented health articles and interactive tools.
Reclaiming Our Health: Exploding the Medical Myth and Embracing the Source of True Healing by John Robbins (HJ Kramer, 1996)
Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup (Bantam, 1998)
New Choices in Natural Healing, edited by Bill Gottleib (editor in chief, Prevention Magazine Health Books)
Staying Healthy With the Seasons by Elson Haas, M.D.
Examining Your Doctor: A Patient’s Guide to Avoiding Harmful Medical Care by Timothy B. McCall, M.D., (Birch Lane Pr., 1995)
Prescription for Profits: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Bankrolled the Unholy Marriage Between Science and Business by Linda Marsa (Scribner, 1997)
Overdose — The Case Against the Drug Companies: Prescription Drugs, Side Effects, and Your Health by Jay S. Cohen, M.D. (Tarcher/Putnam, 2001)|
What You Can Do
Wrestling your healthcare out from under the thumb of corporate America is a tall order, but it’s by no means impossible. It starts with taking an active role in monitoring and maintaining your health. In other words, don’t wait until something goes wrong and then go to the doctor expecting a quick fix. Rather, follow these suggestions
EAT WELL AND EXERCISE. You’re sick of hearing it, but the fact remains: A healthy diet and adequate exercise are crucial to sidestepping common maladies that can lead to a lifetime of drug dependency or death – heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Emphasize a wide variety of whole, fresh foods you can eat raw, prepare simply or cook up fabulously at home, and avoid all the overprocessed, additive-laden junk everyone else wants to sell you. Think of exercise not just as a weight-loss or bodysculpting tactic, but also as a long-term health-preservation strategy. Exercise keeps your life balanced and keeps you in touch with your body – job one for staying in control of your health.
IDENTIFY AND WEED OUT simple problems. Try an elimination diet for a week or so to find out if you have hidden food sensitivities to wheat, dairy, corn, soy or peanuts. Delayed-reaction food intolerances are a common cause of headaches, overweight, bloating, skin conditions, food cravings and other problems (see Dr. Elson Haas’s article on page 53 for more information).
EAT AS ORGANICALLY as you can afford to. You’ll eat healthier and, as Brenner points out, “The more people who eat organic food, the bigger the demand, the larger the market, the lower the prices.” If you can’t afford all-organic, read up on which fruits and vegetables (and meats) harbor the most dangerous levels of chemicals, and learn how you can avoid them or remove as many as possible. A little rinsing is rarely enough – you may also need to peel, skin, scrub or soak your food (see below).
WASH YOUR FOOD. All produce, including organic produce, should be thoroughly washed to remove bacteria and parasites. Fill the sink with water and add a capful of produce wash (there are several nontoxic brands available), then add your fruits and vegetables and let them soak for a few minutes. Drain, rinse and dry them well. Bonus: Most foods stay fresher longer once you’ve gotten rid of the bacteria (but produce folks still suggest washing berries and other delicate foods just before you eat because washing can cause them to break down more quickly).
BE AWARE of how lifestyle factors are affecting you, and address them head on. When you are stressed, worried, exhausted or unhappy, your body doesn’t work as well, and it starts sending out calls for help. As resources are stretched thin, it also starts lowering its guard, and your immunity suffers. Insomnia, chronic stress and emotional anxiety can throw your body chemistry off kilter, suppress your metabolism and raise your blood pressure. It can also negatively impact your eating and exercise, setting you up for a whole range of even bigger problems.
UNDERSTAND how the body’s signaling system works: When the body is deprived of proper nutrition and exercise, is congested or overloaded with too much or the wrong kinds of food, is inundated by stress or poisoned by the chemicals in our air and food, it begins slipping from the state of health to a state of dis-ease. We may begin to experience symptoms at this point, but in most cases, medical tests will still register normal because not enough depletion or toxicity has occurred to cause changes that can be clinically observed or diagnosed. This is the time for you to take action – by cleaning up your diet, detoxing, getting adequate rest, exercise, and nutritional support, and seeking help from a health-oriented professional.
STAY VIGILANT. Look at your body, listen to it, pay attention to symptoms. Watch for changes in your skin, hair, nails, eyes, digestion and elimination, body smells, energy levels, weight, breathing, sleep patterns, temperature and heart rate. Note swelling, puffiness, tingles, itching, pain sensitivity, lumps and inflammation. Don’t tolerate weirdnesses or difficulties and wait for them to get worse before you do anything. Don’t let a doctor tell you “not to worry” about something that seems off and is causing you worry. Seek advice and education from an alternate source, and initiate lifestyle changes, simple self-care procedures and alternative treatment early enough and you may avoid having to take your problem elsewhere.
IF YOU HAVE GOOD HEALTH INSURANCE and can afford it, keep it. But don’t rely on it to keep you healthy or pay for it at the expense of good health maintenance. Expensive health insurance plans are great if your appendix bursts and you find yourself on your back in the hospital. They’re not so great when your immune system is beat and you’re on your fifth cold in as many weeks. Instead of going for the Rolls Royce of insurance plans, buy a Ford Focus and funnel the savings into a medical savings account (MSA) earmarked for keeping you healthy. Whether you splurge on a gym membership, a monthly massage or regular trips to a naturopath or acupuncturist, chances are good you’ll save money in the long run and be healthier to boot.
IF YOU HAVE A CHOICE OF PHYSICIAN, choose someone who sees you as an individual and not as your condition or disease. That means finding a doctor who makes eye contact, speaks clearly and takes time to listen, and is likely to advise you on how to care for your body (vs. just prescribing pills). Follow your gut. If the doc glances at her watch, shuffles papers while you’re describing your symptoms, seems too quick to diagnose or is otherwise distracted or dismissive, hit the door.
CONSIDER GETTING INVOLVED with a wellness clinic. An increasing number of health practitioners (in particular, naturopaths and chiropractors) are now offering healthcare packages that work more like memberships: In fact, you may be considered a “practice member,” not a patient. You can buy a number of office visits at a reduced rate and then come as regularly as you wish for treatment (often a few times a week at the outset while you get your body balanced and your health on track). In addition to coming for treatment sessions, you may also take seminars and workshops about nutrition and lifestyle factors that affect your well-being. Once you are doing well and know how to take care of yourself, you just come on an as-needed basis. Some practitioners, including some forwardthinking M.D.s, even offer an annual fee that gives you access to unlimited care. The idea is that you and your provider are working in partnership to get and keep you healthy, and your practitioner actually has incentive to help you stay healthy (vs. making money when you are sick, the way it works in the traditional system).
USE DRUGS WISELY. Be aware that, in general, the more drugs you take, the more likely you are to suppress symptoms that are trying to tell you that something deeper is wrong; the more likely you are to experience side effects and undesirable interactions; and the more stress you put on your body’s detoxifying systems. Some prescription drugs do save lives and provide much-needed relief, but many are overused, and adverse drug reactions are a leading cause of death.
RESIST PRIME-TIME PILL PUSHING. If a d rug or supplement ad sparks your interest, do a background check. Find out what benefits the product offers, what research there is to support it, what the side effects are, whether or not it’s the best thing for your condition and whether its costs are in line with its returns. Don’t simply hound your doctor for the pink pill you saw advertised during your favorite sitcom, or rush to the nutrition store for another bottle of “miracle pills.”
IF YOU SEE MORE THAN ONE DOCTOR, make sure each knows what medications you take and any side effects you experience. If a doctor suggests adding a new drug, find out if it’s really necessary, how it works, and what available drugs of its type have the fewest side effects. Also discuss starting at a lower dose than what’s indicated. Most drugs are made with a one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, for most women and older folks, that size is a 170-pound man. Lower doses mean fewer side effects. Team up with your physician to find out what dose works best for your body (even if it takes more time).
GET INVOLVED. Whatever you care about, whether it’s breast cancer, heart disease, junk-food in the schools, pesticides in the environment or overprescribing of Ritalin and antidepressants, find an organization that is working on the issue and volunteer your time or cash. “The problem of big money running healthcare must be solved politically from the ground up because the people at the top aren’t listening,” says Brenner. “The only way they’re going to listen is if we get engaged.”
LEARN MORE. See the Resources section or, for more basic suggestions on taking control of your health, review our “Easy Does It” article in the September issue of EL.
Shopping for Alternative Therapies
DO YOUR RESEARCH. Find an organization that works specifically with your condition and ask them what kinds of alternative therapies or supplements are being used most successfully. Check out Web sites and online bulletin boards for background information, treatment suggestions and screened referral lists. Go to a bookstore or library and check out books by alternative-treatment experts. About.com sponsors many informative sites related to common conditions and health concerns (see Resources for additional suggestions). While, for most conditions, you shouldn’t attempt to set and implement your own treatment plan, if you know a lot about your own condition before you consult an expert, you’ll be able to provide more useful information and ask better questions.
GET A REFERRAL. Once you’ve decided on a complementary therapy, ask your doctor, friends or family members for a referral. Your chances of finding a reputable therapist increase when you find him through a trusted source. If you already have one good alternative practitioner (e.g., a chiropractor, acupuncturist or nutritionist), ask him or her to recommend another type of alternative specialist.
CHOOSE YOUR PRACTITIONER CAREFULLY. Most of the major complementary therapies have set standards for licensing or, at the least, credentialing. For example, if you plan to visit an acupuncturist, make sure she’s been licensed by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Ask for her training and licensing qualifications as well as background, experience and treatment philosophy to be sent to you by mail (or check her out on the Web) prior to scheduling an appointment.
You might also want to conduct a brief phone consultation before your first appointment to gauge your practitioner’s personality, treatment philosophy and manner.
TELL ALL. To avoid unwanted side effects and complications, tell your physician what kinds of herbal formulas and supplements you are taking (and how much), and also tell your alternative-care practitioners what meds your doctor has you on. Some herbal remedies, such as St. John’s Wort, affect the action of prescription drugs.
Any good healthcare practitioner will ask you about your medications and supplements. They should also ask you about your diet, exercise, stress levels and other lifestyle information. If they don’t ask, tell them anyway. If they don’t seem interested, run — don’t walk — for the nearest exit. There are far too many good healthcare practitioners out there for you to tolerate a dud.