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[whitespace] Taking Care

'Home Wellness Handbook' offers do-it-yourself advice

By Patrick Sullivan

Can anybody cure America's ailing health-care system? Most people who aren't independently wealthy are intimately familiar with the dreary symptoms: escalating prices for care and insurance and prescriptions, insurance companies that won't cover even some basic or lifesaving treatments, doctors whose bedside manner is better suited to a fast-food restaurant than a hospital, and so on. And as costs climb, doctors' groups go belly-up, and insurance companies reduce their coverage, the situation will only get worse.

How bad is the crisis? Bad enough that one California doctor recently announced on KQED's Forum that the state's health-care system is "on the verge of collapse."

Various remedies have been proposed, from a patients' bill of rights to a national health-care system. But all of these seem to go nowhere. Perhaps that's because the insurance lobby wields one of the biggest clubs on Capital Hill. To use a medical analogy, it's as if our political red blood cells have been bought off by a virulent strain of the flu. And that doesn't seem likely to change soon.

What can health-care consumers do? One good response: Take more responsibility into your own hands. If health care is about to become even harder to get than it already is, ordinary people had better learn everything they can about taking care of themselves. And since going to med school is even more expensive than the average insurance plan, one place to start is in the bookstore.

Along comes The Complete Home Wellness Handbook (Rebus; $34.95), a new book by John Edward Swartzberg and Sheldon Margen, two doctors on the editorial board of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, a popular and respected monthly newsletter published by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

This authoritative and easy-to-read tome offers advice on home remedies, prevention, and self-care, covering everything from heartburn and hay fever to heart disease and HIV/AIDS.

The best ways to avoid needing a doctor is to not get sick. To that end, this book's authors offer an excellent guide to basic wellness strategies. The ideas are simple: don't smoke, stay active, control your weight, and eat a good diet rich in fruits and vegetables. But knowing something is good for you doesn't always make it easy to do, so it's a big plus that the doctors offer easy-to-understand advice on how to achieve such goals as ending a nicotine habit.

Some readers will be fascinated by the A-Z guide on ailments and disorders. Hypochondria is not covered, but just about everything else is. Want to know the best way to cope with airplane ears or altitude sickness? Wish to end that bout with anal itching? Need to employ the best means to control your cholesterol? Want the latest advice on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases? It's all covered in The Complete Home Wellness Handbook. And if you need more info, the wellness directory offers plenty of ideas on where to get details.

The book also offers plenty of interesting advice on coping with our deeply pathological health-care system. There is an especially good explanation of the obstacles and pitfalls facing those who seek mental health treatment--turns out it can mark you for life with insurance companies, making coverage harder to get and more expensive. No, you're not paranoid: They really are out to get you.

The authors also discuss the pros and cons of alternative treatments, from acupuncture to massage therapy--though some defenders of such therapies may think the book errs on the conservative side in evaluating these treatments.

Among the best things in the book is a section explaining how and why patients should establish clear communication with their doctors. In fact, readers may feel an irrepressible urge to photocopy these pages and deliver them to their own physicians, perhaps underlining these lines: "Poor interpersonal skills can hurt the doctor as well as the patient. Several studies concluded that patients are more likely to sue for malpractice if they feel that a doctor is uncaring--that is, doesn't listen to them, rushes them, and fails to inform them adequately." Any of that sound familiar?

Occasionally, the authors do seem a little behind the times, such as when they observe and deplore the fact that cigar smoking and "trendy cigar bars" have been growing in popularity. Didn't cigar bars go out with the '90s?

But the overwhelming majority of advice offered here will give solid comfort to folks bedeviled by a health-care system that seems focused on anything but offering health care.

The authors of The Complete Home Wellness Handbook rightly caution that their book is not a substitute for access to a living, breathing physician. But given the state of America's medical system, this handy tome may be the closest some of us get.

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From the January 17-23, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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