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Essay: Taking Charge of Your Health

An essay by Mary Jo Kreitzer, Ph.D., R.N.

While many people rely on their doctor or nurse practitioner to improve their health, the biggest factor affecting your well being is you. From diet and exercise to being an informed health care consumer, there are many ways to take charge of your health and improve both your physical condition and longevity.

Taking charge of your health should be a two pronged effort. First, develop a personal plan for your health and well being, considering the physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of your life. Second, focus on learning how to navigate our often complex health care system. After all, doctors, hospitals, and medications impact only 10 percent of the usual measures of health. Factors outside of your doctor's control — namely, you — affect the remaining 90 percent of health outcomes.
Edward Creagan, a physician at the Mayo Clinic, makes eight broad suggestions for improving your health in his book, How Not to be My Patient. On the physical side, eat a plant-based diet and make sensible food choices, use alcohol in moderation, avoid tobacco, engage in regular physical activity, and maintain an ideal body weight. When it comes to your spiritual and emotional health, it's important to form stable and long-term relationships, foster a sense of spirituality, and find meaning and purpose in your life.

Getting deeply involved with your health care is another vital aspect to taking charge of your well being. Many people devote more time to buying a new car or house than they do to selecting their doctor or nurse practitioner. When choosing a provider, check out the person's credentials and experience, making sure they have a background in caring for patients with your condition.

Similarly, if you are going to a hospital for surgery-say a hip or knee replacement-do some legwork to make sure the hospital has performed a high volume of these procedures, in other words, hundreds not dozens. The web sites for WebMD ( and Blue Cross Blue Shield ( actually allow you to compare hospitals and different statistics such as complication rates, infection rates, and access to complementary therapies. So do your homework.

Organize your medical information in a three-ring binder. If you have a complex condition such as cancer or a chronic disease, it's not necessarily true that your primary care physician and all of your specialists are talking to each other about procedures and medications. It's your legal right to receive copies of any medical records and tests, so just ask your doctor's office for copies.

If you have just been diagnosed with a serious illness, bring someone with you to major doctor's appointments. Ask a spouse, sibling, child, or friend to take notes and help you process information from the doctor. Also, don't be shy about requesting a second opinion. Many people worry they will offend their physician, but that's not the case. Three excellent doctors can evaluate a patient and all come to different conclusions about the best route for treatment. That's because practicing medicine is an art as well as a science.

It's important to find a health care provider who will partner with you and help you explore all of your options. Both your provider and you should recognize that decisions about your health are yours to make. Go on and take charge of your health. It's never too late.

Mary Jo Kreitzer, Ph.D., R.N., is founder and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. She is also an associate professor in the University's School of Nursing. November 2006.



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