Book Review: The Empowered Patient

Friday Nov 9 | BY |
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Elizabeth Cohen has written a book you really should read if you want to be sure you’re getting the right healthcare treatments.

There are lots of helpful blogs, websites, magazine articles, and books about how to get the most from your healthcare plan, and how not to be victim of the traditional healthcare system. The once-sacred “do no harm” of the Hippocratic Oath is part of a forgotten lineage of scholarly, gentleman doctors. Now, it’s all about the money. Patients beware.

Elizabeth Cohen, a CNN senior medical correspondent and one who has experienced her own difficulties at the hands of impersonal healthcare providers, has written a valuable little book. The Empowered Patient is full or insights and useful tips on how to navigate healthcare without getting harmed, while getting what you need most.

Why Being a “Bad Patient” May be a Good Thing
Chapter One is about how to be a “bad patient.” These are not bad people, but those demanding and disagreeable patients who fight for their healthcare rights and hold doctors accountable for answers to their questions. I know that it’s counter-intuitive, but “bad” patients often have the best outcomes.

One of my friends, an emergency room M.D. of more than thirty years of practice, suffered what was originally thought to be a heart attack. They gave him too much blood thinners in the emergency room, which then they thought caused a stroke. On life support, they left him in a cold hospital room to die.

Ten days later, he was still in a coma, but not dead. Then he woke up, lucid and angry. Who was in charge? What was his diagnosis? What were they going to do next? What if it didn’t work? What was their backup plan? Nothing.

He called a friend and colleague from his residency days that connected him with a specialist in stroke-like brain disorders at Duke University. Within fifteen minutes on the phone, the specialist had enough clues to order a test to confirm a rare cerebral artery genetic disorder. The test came back positive. The specialist called my friend and said, “Get out of the hospital now. They will kill you with more treatments.”

Alive, but in a weakened state, his wife took him home. There was no known treatment for his condition, but blood thinners made it worse. He started a program of nutritional supplements to support his body systems and improve his blood quality. It worked. Within a few weeks, he was up and walking. Within another week, he was exercising, and by the end of the first month, he paid me a visit.

Over lunch, he told me he was out of the field of medicine. He’d had it with incompetence, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies controlling how a doctor practiced, including withholding treatments and medicines that cured so they could keep patients ill.

American medicine had become a sick-care system, with nothing to do with health.

Be a Savvy Internet Researcher
Ms. Cohen doesn’t tear down the system. There are plenty of books, including those by MDs, that do that. But she provides a box lunch for the journey into the medical maze of modern sick-care. Her last chapter is how not to let a hospital kill you. It should have been the first.

In between, she has a catchy chapter on how to be a savvy Internet researcher. I’ve blogged on this topic in the last few months, and found her advice right on. Here are some highlights worth repeating:

  • Sort good health sites from bad ones. There’s a lot of garbage and spin on the Internet. You have to learn how to weed out the good from the bad. Start with trusted sites from non-profit organizations and top universities. Then compare that information against marketing sites.
  • Find patients like you. Look for membership sites, chat rooms, or blogs for patients with your diagnosis. Talk with patients in the doctor’s waiting room. You’ll learn a lot about what worked best, what not to do, and who are the best doctors and nurses.
  • Look past Google. This monster search engine is for making money. It’s not a site where the cream rises to the top. Quick searches push paid sites to the first page. Scroll through ten or more pages.
  • Go to the research. Check out Google Scholar, PubMed, and BioMed Central.
  • Read the way researchers do it. Read the abstract and the conclusion. If the article makes sense to you, carefully explore the entire paper. Medical terms and scientific jargon are daunting. It’s not easy to understand a scientific paper. Print a list of these articles to show your doctor.
  • Catch a medical conference. Or, read material presented at a conference, or purchase the audio recordings. Medical experts present the latest information, often before it comes out in the media, at conferences.
  • Email experts. Once you find a great research paper or brilliant presentation, you’ll often see the contact information listed in the heading of the paper. It’s perfectly acceptable to write a brief email asking for an interview or more information. Never send a long-winded unsolicited history of your illness. If you do, don’t expect an answer.
  • Look up local experts. If you live in a city with a major medical university or research hospital, go to their website. There you’ll find a listing of faculty, where you may find an expert in your condition.
  • Don’t get caught up in “cyberchondria.” It’s common for people to develop symptoms of every condition they read about. This is called medical student syndrome.
  • Don’t overwhelm your doctor with a stack of printouts, books, or emailed links. I’m always open to learn from my patients, but I can tell you that wasting time on wild goose chases is not the way I like to spend my evenings. Be respectful of your doctor’s time. Do the background work yourself.

It Applies to Alternative Therapies, Too
For those who have already opted out of traditional medicine, most of the same advice applies to alternative healthcare providers. Whether they are NDs, DCs, OMDs/DOMs, LAcs, or MDs and DOs, the same rules apply. Natural medicines, homeopathy, and nutritional supplements may not kill you, but a wrong diagnosis can send you in a direction that wastes time and money. At worst, your condition deteriorates doing needless, and often senseless, therapies.

Remember, a proactive patient comes prepared, is respectful, and asks appropriate questions until the doctor chooses the right therapy or medicine. If not, the proactive patient chooses the right doctor.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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