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Don't leave it to Congress; take charge of your health
By Dr. Patrick Massey | Columnist
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Published: 4/5/2010 12:00 AM

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This year, the topic of health care has taken center stage and many of my patients have asked my opinion about it. I know that we need to do something since we spend more money on health care than any other country in the world and yet, according to some measures of health, we rank behind all of the industrialized nations. Fifty years ago, it seemed that health care was good. What went wrong?

Congress and the Senate have discussed health care at great length-how to fund it-who would have it-total costs. However, the one question that was never asked by our legislators is, "Why do Americans require more health care then other industrialized nations?" That question is the heart of the health care debate.

Treating illness will always be expensive. It is the nature of the beast. Medications, hospitalization and therapy are expensive. No one wants rationing and it is rare to hear of a person demanding "bargain basement" therapies when his or her life is on the line. I believe that we can continue to have the best medicine offers, without rationing, but we need to change how we view our own health. If we want medical costs to come down, we simply need to be healthier.

As a society, we have abdicated our responsibility for our own health. Our lifestyle is the major contributor to the current health crisis. It has been estimated that at least 60 percent of chronic illness is the direct result of lifestyle-and can be corrected by changing how we live.

The medical community is partly to blame. Advances in medicine have allowed us to hang onto our poor diet, lack of exercise, stress and sleep deprivation in favor of drugs and invasive therapies. For example, we know that exercise, diet and stress reduction will reduce cholesterol. But why worry when a medication can lower cholesterol without making the effort to change a negative lifestyle? Why exercise to prevent osteoporosis when a drug can do the job?

I had a patient who was on nine medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, irritable bowel, insomnia and depression. His annual medical costs were over $10,000. He believed that as long as he took his medicine, he was healthy. He did not realize that he was still at significant risk of heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer's disease. He changed his diet and began to exercise regularly. In a few months, his irritable bowel disappeared; he was sleeping a solid seven or eight hours per night, his depression lifted and cholesterol normalized. He was left with borderline high blood pressure and now is on one medication. Yearly medical costs are less than $1,000.

To me, the solution to the health care crisis does not rest with government, insurance companies, physicians or hospitals. For most people, you chose to be healthy or you chose to be ill. Regardless of what comes out of Congress, your actions determine your health. It is your responsibility.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.