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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Health watch

Darrell Murphy checks his glucose level several times a day and meticulously records the numbers in a diary. He’s been living with type-2 diabetes for 12 years but started tracking his glucose only a few years ago when he joined a diabetes research study.

About a year ago he noticed the numbers were steadily going up even though he wasn’t doing anything differently. He mentioned the pattern to a nurse and soon learned his insulin medication needed adjusting.

That’s when it clicked, he says. Keeping track of your own health picture is important.

“It was something only I saw, and that’s the value of keeping good records,” he says.

Though it can be critical for patients with chronic illnesses, the advice applies to everyone. More and more patients are being urged to take charge of their health. But what do you need to know and how far should you go to get it?

One of the most outspoken advocates, Dr. Marie Savard, encourages everyone to get copies of their medical records and keep them current. Savard is the author of, “How to Save Your Own Life,” in which she says patients need to trust the “doctor within” and speak up about what they think is wrong. She also stresses the importance of a being an informed patient in an online question-and-answer column.

But it’s not just activists urging you to take charge. Even the federal government is pushing the importance of knowing your family health history, specifically six prevalent health problems with genetic ties.

This past Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General made available free downloadable software designed to help people track their family health history. They stressed that knowing what affected previous generations can help you and your family stay healthy.

Local health professionals acknowledge the need for patients to be informed about their health and their family history.

“I appreciate people who know their information,” says Patti Krafft, a nurse practitioner working with Murphy and other diabetics as part of the ACCORD Study. Washington State University researchers are part of the broad National Institutes of Health study officially titled Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetics. (Patients can still sign up to join the study through June. Call (509) 358-7733. For more information about the study, go to www.accordtrial.org.)

Krafft says she thinks there should be a class in high school that teaches the importance of managing your own health, stressing basics such as knowing about allergies, surgeries and family history.

She says it helps a great deal when patients can explain their health problems and concerns, especially since people switch doctors much more frequently these days because they’ve moved or changed health insurance plans.

The result: Patients often see a new health provider before they’ve had their medical records forwarded, which sometimes can take months. And medical records are not always complete.

In both cases, informed patients can fill in critical information.

Dr. Jeff White, a family practice physician in Group Health Cooperative’s Lidgerwood Health Care Center, described a case where a new patient came to him, having changed insurance providers three times in two years. She was taking a cholesterol-lowering medication, but there was no record of when or why she needed it and she didn’t know, he says.

“We couldn’t figure out why she was on it,” he says.

While he admits it can be overkill when a new patient brings a several-inch thick file to a 10-minute appointment, he says, “It’s a whole lot better than an empty chart and someone taking seven medications.”

It’s becoming increasingly important for patients to know details about blood work, White says, because the standards of normal are changing rapidly.

For example, he says, in the past two decades normal ranges for total cholesterol levels have gone from below 300 to 240 and lower to now less than 200. If new patients come in and say they had a cholesterol test eight years ago and it was “normal,” White says it’s important to realize that what was normal then may not be today.

Though White says most of his patients are pretty aware of their family health history, he says it’s important to know at what age family members had certain conditions. There’s a big difference between ages 48 and 68 and 58 and 77 when you’re talking about illnesses such as colon cancer and heart disease. Just knowing the age of onset of disease in a family member can be the deciding factor in whether to start medications or screenings.

Even when something seems like a one-time health problem today, it can come up as a health issue down the road. That’s when having the record makes a big difference.

Krafft described a friend who was in an accident 20 years ago and needed surgery on his hand. Now, two decades later, he’s having problems with the hand, and doctors want to know what was done during surgery. But they can’t find out because he doesn’t have copies of the surgery records, and the hospital purged those records long ago.

Though it took joining a research study to get him to keep track of his own health records, Murphy says he’s much more aware now of the value.

“Keeping records allows you to see what’s going on instead of just waiting for something to happen,” he says.

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