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Charlotte Sutton: Health care lessons fit for the season

This is graduation season, so advice is flying thick and fast.

I am still benefiting from wisdom dispensed when I finished high school and was preparing for college.

Dad's was poetic: "To thine own self be true.'' Mom's was reassuring: "You can always come home.'' My brother, then a college senior, kept it basic: "Never drink the punch at frat parties.''

If an 18-year-old were to ask me for one piece of advice, I would go with my brother's. Terrible things can happen to young women — and men — who don't know exactly what is in their beverages.

Plus, spiked punch could be an analogy for so many potentially deceptive situations one might encounter in life. But really, I'm sure my brother was just talking about punch.

Now, many years later, I am graduating again — this time with a master's degree from the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. I started taking courses soon after I became health editor at the Tampa Bay Times. I still can't call myself an expert. But I'm smarter than I was, and that was the whole point.

My focus has been health care policy and management, giving me many opportunities to revel in my inner wonk. But I've also picked up lots of practical information useful to any health care consumer. So, in the spirit of the wisdom-seeking season, here are some lessons that I either learned or came to better understand, thanks to the professors, students, practitioners, books and journals I've had the privilege of getting to know:

Money doesn't always buy the best care: The United States spends more than any other nation on health care, yet we don't enjoy the healthiest lives. A big reason: We put far more emphasis on sickness than wellness.

We need better priorities: If you think people who have no insurance can always go to the emergency room if they're sick, you're right, they can. But the care often comes too late to be truly helpful. And it costs a fortune — which we all will see reflected in tax bills and insurance premiums.

Trust, but verify: Most of us are not physicians, so we can't always rely on our own wisdom to know what kind of care is best. Nor is it easy to get straight answers on costs. But don't give up. Learn about your own health issues, and ask for financial details so you can make decisions in partnership with your providers.

Trust, but verify, part 2: A lot of what passes for health advice on the Internet is laughable or even dangerous. Ask your doctors which sites he or she trusts, and use those as a starting point for your own research. If your doctor pats you on the head and tells you not to worry about it, consider getting another doctor.

Be wary of "breakthroughs'': Good medical research moves slowly. One study, even in a prestigious journal, is just one more piece of information that needs to be considered in context.

Heredity is not destiny: You have a lot more power over your health than you may realize. Good habits can go a long way toward mitigating lousy genetics and recovering from past poor practices. And communities that pull together for each other's good health tend to do better by everyone.

Public health needs a pink ribbon moment: In my very first grad school course, I learned that only 3 percent of what the United States spends on health care goes to public health — preventive health measures that benefit lots of people at once, like vaccinations, tobacco control, clean water measures, that kind of thing. Yet it has been estimated that public health improvements account for 25 of the 30 years gained in life expectancy over the past century.

So instead of waiting for the next miracle drug or wonder device, how about some walkathons for safe, well-lit sidewalks and better access to fresh foods so more people can enjoy the benefits of healthy activity and diet? Perhaps more campaigns to keep kids from using tobacco, improve funding for prenatal care, increase health inspections and provide trustworthy assistance for people seeking health insurance information?

It's all solid common sense — no advanced degree required.

Charlotte Sutton: Health care lessons fit for the season

05/01/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 6:44pm]
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