Preventative medicine is the best medicine and the foundation of prevention is education.  Education about health promotion and disease prevention, called health literacy, is how much you know about health and how you use that knowledge.  What do you know about promoting health and preventing disease?  What don’t you know, and how do you educate yourself about health and disease?  Before you set foot in a clinic or hospital, before you call your doctor or make an appointment with a nurse you are making decisions that impact your health and the well being of those around you.

According to a report published by the National Association of Community Health Centers, at least one-third of all Emergency Department (ED) visits are “avoidable, meaning, non-urgent…or treatable in primary care settings” and “over $18 billion dollars are wasted annually for avoidable ED visits.”  With the cost of health care exceeding $2.8 trillion last year, the number of uninsured Americans well over 44 million, and the overwhelming majority of hospitals in the US overcrowded and understaffed, preventative medicine has never been more important.

“ObamaCare” will change a few things: most Americans are now required to have health insurance of some kind.  Obamacarefacts.com claims over 100 million people have already enrolled, but that figure is presently shrouded in controversy.  Providers who offer plans through the Affordable Care Act are required to pay for preventative services including screenings for Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, as well as preventable lifestyle-related illnesses from smoking, drinking and obesity – with no out-of-pocket expenses.  Additionally, providers can no longer refuse payment or penalize individuals for “pre-existing” conditions.  By requiring Americans to have some kind of coverage, and by offering insurance plans that guarantee free access to preventative care, the Affordable Care Act is the government’s “Ounce of Prevention.”  It remains to be seen whether this preventative measure will significantly curb the skyrocketing cost of health care, but it is a step in the right direction.

The growing interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) also reflects a shift in public thinking – taking personal initiative to promote health and prevent disease.  According to the National Institute for Health, we spend over $34 billion a year out-of-pocket for complementary and alternative care.  Many of these modalities offer preventative care and support healthy lifestyle choices.  Section 2706 of the Affordable Care Act recognizes the importance of CAM by stating insurance companies may not discriminate against state licensed CAM providers.  It still remains to be seen how these lofty goals will shake out in 2014.

Preventative medicine is the number one priority of health educators and health providers from nurses and nursing schools to first responders to major metropolitan hospitals.  We see preventative medicine every day on “Nutrition Facts” labeling required by the USDA, the “Surgeon General’s Warning” on alcohol and tobacco products, laws requiring the use of seatbelts and the increased availability of over the counter herbs and nutritional supplements.  There is a proliferation of resources that promote health literacy – helping you to be more empowered in making decisions that affect your health.  The Journal of the American Medical Association has linked low health literacy with poor health outcomes and higher health literacy with improved health.  The more you know, the healthier you are.

For example, you have read the “Surgeon General’s Warning” on alcoholic beverages.  You are also aware that drinking and driving is against the law – that’s health literacy.  Now you can make decisions based on that knowledge that will not only affect your health, but the well-being of those around you.  If you decide to avoid drinking and driving, you are practicing preventative medicine, let’s say you’re now a Doctor of PM!  However, if you still decide to drive yourself home from the bar on a Saturday night (or Sunday morning) you better be willing to take responsibility for the outcome.

There are three levels of preventative medicine and each level depends on you: your health literacy, your ability to make empowered decisions, and your willingness to take responsibility for the outcome.

Primary Prevention: This includes educating yourself on health related issues, reading books and articles, wearing seat-belts, quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and taking appropriate dietary supplements.

Secondary Prevention: Regular check-ups, clinic visits, dental cleaning, age appropriate health screenings provide important information on maintaining health and preventing advanced diseases.  For example, a routine check-up for someone in his mid-forties may reveal elevated blood glucose levels – an early warning sign of Type II diabetes.  He can the use this knowledge to modify his lifestyle to prevent developing or worsening the condition.

Tertiary Prevention: Once a disease process has already begun the third level of preventative medicine is focused on rehabilitation.  This includes wearing an ace bandage on a sprained ankle to prevent further injury, taking prescribed antibiotics to prevent further infection, and following up with your doctor after a medical procedure.  If, and when, you are in the clinic or hospital, ask your doctor “How can I prevent a recurrence?”  Ask all the medical professionals you meet “How can I avoid meeting you again?” and they will be more than happy to offer advice.

Anyone can implement these three levels of preventative medicine, you don’t need special training or degrees to do it and you don’t need to wait for ObamaCare or an insurance company to tell you how to take care of yourself and your family .  All it takes is awareness and common sense and you, too, can be a “Doctor of PM”!  Your health is up to you – you have the power to educate yourself and to make decisions that will affect your health and the well being of those around you.  An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.  Thanks for taking the time to increase your health literacy and “Here’s to Your Health!”

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