The Medical Self-Care column shares seven rules for better health.
The First Law: You are already your own doctor.
Research shows that people provide their own illness care between 80 and 98% of the time. (The difference in the figures cited simply reflects varying definitions of illness.) In one recent survey, people were asked to list all the health problems they'd experienced within the preceding two weeks. The average turned out to be 4.5—which works out to 117 health problems per person per year! But the average individual goes to a doctor only two to three times a year. And the percentage of preventive care that is self-provided probably runs close to 99%.
These figures make it clear that self-care is—and has always been—our predominant form of health care.
The Second Law: Lay people could do even more for themselves if they had better access to currently available health tools, skills, support, and information.
Most people go to the doctor only when they feel that they lack the resources they need to deal with a health problem themselves. But there are many ways to obtain help without going to a health professional.
Often, the information and support a person needs can more appropriately be provided by a friend, neighbor, or self-help group. And a large number of the day-to-day skills of doctoring—from examining an eardrum to testing one's urine—can now be easily learned and safely done at home. Many individuals, for example, go to the doctor regularly to have their blood pressure checked—yet, with today's electronic cuffs, it's a simple matter to take your own blood pressure at home.
Some of the most promising opportunities for improving our health care system involve finding ways to make health tools, information, skills, and support available through lay channels.
The Third Law: Our most powerful health resources are our spouses, families, friends, social networks, and communities.
An overwhelming body of research suggests that, for most of us, the number one health-determining factor in our lives is not how we eat or exercise, or whether we smoke or wear seat belts—rather, it is our social support system. One study of residents in a neighborhood found that people with few friends, relatives, and social links were 2.5 times more likely to die early than those who had a wealth of friends and many close social ties.
The Fourth Law: Health is not the absence of disease.
There is a continuum of wellness-illness states. Prevention means focusing on health concerns and behaviors while you are still on the wellness side of the spectrum, rather than waiting to act only when disease or disability occurs.
The Fifth Law: What's best for your health depends —at least in part—on your belief system.
Health is a part of culture, and different people are products of different cultures. It has been well established that the remedies people believe in are much more effective for them. A self-care-oriented health care system, therefore, must be a diverse system—a health care smorgasbord offering "different strokes for different folks."
The Sixth Law: The principal goal of a health care system should be to help people take care of themselves.
Those of us who reached adulthood during the last few decades were brought up to overestimate the effectiveness and safety of professional medical care, and to seriously underestimate our own potential for keeping ourselves healthy, for managing our illnesses, and for taking an active role when working with doctors and other health practitioners. We need to seek out and support those health workers and consumer groups whose number one priority is to encourage our self-care efforts and increase our level of health responsibility and competence.
The Seventh Law: Health is a regenerative function.
We have been taught to think of health problems as inevitable breakdowns that can be repaired by professionals—like a car that needs new tires or a rebuilt carburetor. As a result, we ignore our health until a problem becomes an emergency. Then we attempt heroic solutions: the coronary care unit, bypass surgery, a heart transplant.
The human body has almost unbelievable healing powers. But to operate at their optimal levels, these powers require constant nourishment and care: a healthful diet and environment, regular exercise, the support of others, a meaningful life, and a good measure of self understanding. The body has its own wisdom, but it must be listened to, understood, and trusted.
Your body is like the soil: If properly cared for over a long period of time, it can replenish itself and provide a bounty beyond imagining. By following these seven rules for better health you will ensure less health problems. But if ignored, depleted, and exploited, your body will soon lose its ability to sustain life.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Medical Self-Care, Dr. Tom Ferguson's quarterly journal, is available for $15 per year from Medical Self-Care, Inverness, CA 94937. A sample issue costs $4.00. Dr. Ferguson's book, also titled Medical Self-Care, can be ordered — for $10 postpaid — from the same address.