30 December 2009

But what if I want to avoid the healthcare system as much as possible?

I've been doing a lot of thinking (and writing) about technology and health, and much of the conversations I've heard going on have to do with improving Health IT (HIT) with hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare providers. For those seriously ill, like ePatientDave, who are depending on their records to actively help manage their own care, this is a non-negotiable must-have. You've just gotta have access to your data, if you're going to have a hand in your own survival. There's no way around that.

I won't spend a lot of time discussing this. People with a lot more expertise and drive in the HIT space are discussing this actively. There's a lot of progress that needs to be made, but there's also a lot of focus turned to it, with new electronic medical records systems coming online and formal projects underway to craft solutions for the rampant issues that are keeping the "care" out of healthcare.

What I DO want to discuss, is another focus I've had. That focus is two-fold: 1) staying as healthy as possible, so I don't have to become dependent on the medical system, and 2) being able to manage my own health issues, should they occur, with the tools and information I need to maintain the level of daily functioning that I desire. Health concerns aside (and I do have some), I shouldn't be waylaid and held back in my dreams, goals and ambitions, because of health issues I can manage myself.

Now, I've had this dual focus for over 20 years, in no small part due to the botched healthcare I've received in the past. I lost some of the most vibrant years of my life to flawed diagnoses; in my early 20's, I was told I had a serious, possibly life-threatening illness by medical professionals who even after many, many months of testing, had no conclusive, substantiated evidence that I really had what they theorized was vexing me. I spent my early 20's living in mortal fear of spontaneous internal bleeding, skin discoloration which would disfigure me for life (and never go away), debilitating pain, and degeneration of my connective tissues. When everyone else my age was running around doing what one normally does in their early 20's -- working jobs that would form the foundation of future career paths, going out on the town with friends, enjoying social and outdoor activities -- I was holed up in my apartment, laying low, trying to keep my stress level as low as possible.

I was intensely stressed, in those days, and I realize now that the stress of the diagnoses I received -- at first, discoid lupus erythematosis, then sytemic lupus erythematosis (nasty stuff, as the names imply) -- probably put a lot more strain on my system that may have caused many of the symptoms they attributed to the condition. At the time I was undergoing tests, there was not yet a conclusive rule-in test. Everything was rule-out, back then, and they couldn't find anything other than lupus, to explain my symptoms -- skin rash above my right eye that would not disappear, fatigue, pain in my joints, general weakness, and more.

So, I got assigned a diagnosis of lupus, and it was off to the races.

What a slog that was... all those tests, all those consultations... and nothing conclusive coming of it... how maddening for everyone. I followed their directions to the "T", learned all about lupus, altered my lifestyle, took my meds, did everything I possibly could... but the pain just got worse, the fatigue was crushing, and my early 20's slowly faded into a fog of pain and disorientation from the meds.

Now, I don't bear anyone ill-will in that drama. (I used to, years ago, but I've since given that up as a pointless waste of time and energy.) I spent a lot of time seeing some of the best specialists in the country, but none of them had more to offer me than a prescription for anti-inflammatories and other meds that would buffer my stomach. My symptoms weren't budging, and I couldn't get any relief. Thinking back on that time, it must have been terribly draining for those docs to see person after person in such bad shape -- I shared a waiting room with deeply suffering people many a time -- and the lack of straightfowardness about my condition must have driven them nuts. I really felt for the docs I saw, back then, and I still do. And at a certain point near the end of my active involvement with them, I asked myself -- and them -- what I was doing there, if they could not help me?

They didn't have an answer for that, aside from saying they could try to reduce my symptoms. But their attempts had not been successful to that point, and I was wearing thin, with regard to meds.

Ultimately, I stopped seeing the docs. I stopped seeking help in the medical establishment. I focused more on the basics -- quitting smoking (yes, it can be done), eating better, and making rest and good sleep hygiene a priority. These basics have continued to serve me through the years, and when I start having symptoms again -- a small rash that appears and won't go away, intensifying joint pain, fatigue and weakness -- it's pretty sure sign that I'm neglecting myself.

I guess I'm just one of those all-or-nothing kinds of people. If I'm not all-in, I'm all-out, and I pay a steep price for self-neglect. And sometimes I end up at the doctor in the same state I was before -- me looking at them, leery of the medication they're suggesting, and just wanting my life back... them looking at me, not sure what they're supposed to do for me...

That being said, for this coming year, I'm prioritizing pro-active personal health management. I am totally behind the initiatives for getting health records in shape and making health information shareable.

But one of the unfortunate off-shoots of making data accessible, is that it's vulnerable to corruption and hijacking. A mal-formed database can end up revealing your personal data to someone you don't want to see it. Or a non-secure system can expose sensitive information that should never be seen by outside eyes. People in vulnerable positions are even more vulnerable, when the stewards of our data are nonchalant about our privacy needs and make light of the need for a thoroughgoing security/privacy policy.

And another one of the unfortunate off-shoots of all the HIT work, is that while it may empower me as a patient of a hospital or PCP, it is predicated on the assumption that I am actively engaged with a hospital or PCP. If I'm not "in the system" what then? What tools do I have to manage my own health on my own, outside the purview of the formal system? And what tools do I have to share the information I wish to share, when I wish to share it?

Will I be empowered only if I'm actively participating in a healthcare system which has not fully cared for me on numerous occasions, and has yet to prove itself as a 100% trustworthy partner in my health and well-being?

These are just some questions I have, and some concerns that nag me. I'm not writing off the whole HIT-iverse, and I'm not disparaging it. I just would like more options and more choices. And if I can't find them "out there" I will come up with my own system(s) that suits me just the way I need them to.

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