taking responsibility for my own health

I didn’t tell my parents about my back pain; I did the stretching exercises in my room, and went about my business as usual, albeit a little bit slowly. I did that for my own sanity. I know that their first reaction will be one or more of: take medicine, put on medicated rub, see doctor. They are so convinced that the only solution to medical problems is to medicate, and seeing a doctor is the only course of action. It’s come to a point where I daren’t sniff, cough or even rotate my shoulders in front of my mum.

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I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, or an age thing. I definitely hope not the latter; I can’t stand thinking that I’d become them, counting out half a dozen pills every day and going to the doctor’s at the drop of a hat. May be it’s the elephant in the room, the fear of dying. As we grow older, we are more aware and afraid of every little pain or discomfort, because it may signal or turn into something more sinister. My parents are lucky in that their medical care is free, may be if they needed to pay (like I have to get insurance myself), they’d behave differently. I really don’t know.

I find that I’m not the only one with a different attitude towards healthcare than my parents:

Doctors and medicines – my mother’s belief was that these and only these could ever have a positive impact on health.

I applied to study medicine at university before being rejected and switching to chemistry. While I’m satisfied at the way my career worked out, sometimes when I’m watching a medical documentary or a program like ER I wonder if I would have been a good doctor. The reality is the medicine is all about business nowadays, to the detriment of its fundamental operating principle, helping people.

It seems though, that the world has turned into lose-lose propositions for both doctors and patients. Atul Gawande talked about overkill and the proliferation of no-value care: a study of 1 million medicare patients found that 25-42% received at least one of 26 tests and treatments determined to have no benefit or to be outright harmful. The problem is, health services are paid based on treatment provided, not illness prevented. An interesting analogy:

Why would doctors and nurses want to help people look after themselves? It is tantamount to a top restaurant learning that their new task is going to be – in addition to serving splendid food in a smart environment – teaching people to cook at home. Why undermine the business by running cookery classes?

Scrap that. There is a big winner in all of this. Pharmaceutical companies enjoy profit margins of almost 20%. Yes, I know R&D costs are high, risks are high and once a drug comes out of patent the company can no longer make money. But these companies don’t seem to be suffering. It’s an endless cycle—patients expect drugs, doctors prescribe drugs, pharmaceutical companies charge more and more for the drugs. It’s an endless cycle.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I had a great GP. His prescription to most of my illnesses, especially when it was flu-like, was rest and a few paracetamols if I want to. I’m probably at the extreme of the spectrum. I don’t like going to see the doctor, not because I’m afraid of going to the clinic or hospital, but because I don’t think a course of antibiotics is the solution. Rest, healthy eating and exercise will help strengthen our bodies against common infections. The only exception, I take anti-histammines for my allergy, that can’t be helped.

I think it’s called taking responsibility for my own health.

One of the discovery channels has just started showing The Food Hospital, where nutrition is used to target medical conditions and symptoms such as diabetes, acid reflux and skin allergies. It’s fascinating viewing. Food isn’t the cure for in every case, but if it can help cancer, it can’t be dismissed out of hand.

I recently met a lady in her 70s who look barely older than me, who had been diagnosed with cancer several years ago. She is now the picture of health after changing her diet to a healthier one, and taking up meditation and taichi. She teaches a class every saturday at 9.30am, I need to get off my arse and go to one of those. And drag Mum along too.

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Should we reach for the pill bottle every time we feel under the weather? Probably not. Should we abandon medicine for alternative or nutritional therapies? Probably not. The answer is somewhere in between. Eat sensibly, exercise often, go to the doctor when necessary. Figure out what works for ourselves. We only have one body each, and one lifetime each, if we don’t take responsibility for it, no one else will.