Date: April 1st, 2001
Dr. S. Robert Levine is a crusader. He likes to say, "Just as 'all politics is local,' all healthcare is personal." After all, who cares more about your health than you do?
Levine, who heads the Progressive Policy Institute's Health Priorities Project, argues that people should be the central focus of the health care system, because each of us has differing health needs. Referring to his philosophy as 'personal health ownership,' Levine says, "Everyone experiences health and illness differently. Individuals differ not only because of their upbringing and social experience, but also their unique physiology."
The current system, however, is simply not structured to deliver person-centered health care, Levine contends. "Individuals are out of the equation - they are not a part of the transaction," he says. Instead, physicians have long been considered the all-powerful source of medical wisdom. Then there are the HMOs, intent on stemming the rising tide of medical costs. The result? "The system, as it is now structured, is not based on meeting the real needs of patients, as it too frequently fails to achieve the best possible outcomes," asserts Levine.
Taking Ownership of Your Health
But the health care system is not solely to blame for this state of affairs. Individuals bear a major personal responsibility for their own health. In fact, Levine notes that roughly half of all deaths can be traced to the consequences of personal behavior. Smoking, poor diet, or inadequate exercise are but a few of the personal choices that can harm an individual, now or years down the road.
If you own a car, you know how important it is to keep up with little things, like changing the oil regularly. Likewise, Levine believes the value of "preventive health maintenance" cannot be overemphasized. "It's in your best interest to do breast exams and mammograms, and to see your doctor on a regular basis," he says.
Levine believes individuals must be the catalyst for changing how patients are treated. Individuals — not doctors or hospitals — are fueled by the passion and urgency that comes from living with an illness, or seeing their loved ones suffer.
So what can you do to take a more active role in your own health care? For starters, Levine recommends making a conscious effort to stay informed of the latest developments in health and medicine, and then take steps to change your own behavior accordingly.
Still, given the rapid pace of medical research, it's tough enough for trained health care professionals to stay up to date, let alone the average layman. And then there are those pesky studies with seemingly contradictory results. It's tempting to simply throw up your hands and ignore every study. Levine knows the drill. His patients would argue, "My grandfather smoked all his life, and he lived to be 90." But such attitudes ignore the overwhelming bulk of scientific evidence, he says. While studies may differ marginally, no reputable researchers dispute the dangers of obesity or smoking.
One promising technique involves giving patients a say in their own medical treatments, Levine says. Giving patients a choice of treatment options, along with the potential consequences of each, helps them gain a measure of control during a difficult time in their lives.
"My experience is that we don't think about our health when we're healthy, but we sure do concentrate on it when our lives are threatened," Levine says. As chairman of Clinical Affairs Advisory Committee of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, he has met thousands of volunteers, working hard to bring about a cure for the illness that has afflicted them or a family member. "I like to say that people will walk through walls if they believe it will help reach their goal."
Just think if we could capture that passion earlier in our lives, he muses. The impact on the nation's health care system could be stunning.
- Know your risk of future illness. Be aware of your health status, along with that of your parents and other close family members. If there is a history of heart disease in your family, for example, take steps to minimize your own risk, like watching your weight and lowering your cholesterol.
- Know your doctors.Find out where your doctors trained, their expertise, and whether they are board-certified. Also find out which hospitals they are affiliated with, and what admission privileges they have. Learn which hospitals and doctors are the best in specific fields associated with your particular health risks or problems.
- Know your health plan. What benefits are contained in your health plan? Does your plan give you access to the necessary specialists or procedures, given your specific health risks or problems?
- Identify a trustworthy source of information. The Internet is a valuable tool, but be aware that not all websites are reliable. For a listing of current health guidelines, checkwww.guidelines.gov.
- Keep up with health advances.Medicine is changing rapidly, so it's in your best interest to stay involved and aware of the latest treatments, especially those involving conditions from which you suffer or for which you are at higher risk.
- Take control.Interact with your doctor, and don't be afraid to ask questions. After all, it's your health.