Monday, August 30, 2010

My review of Elizabeth Cohen's book "The Empowered Patient"

This month CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen released her first book, The Empowered Patient: How to Get the Right Diagnosis, Buy the Cheapest Drugs, Beat Your Insurance Company, and Get the Best Medical Care Every Time. I got an advance review copy, and it's taken me this long to figure out how to express my thoughts. I just posted this review on Amazon.

I've always been an empowered patient, so I didn't need to be sold on the concept. I'm a cancer-beating patient blogger, I'm co-chair of a medical society about doctor-patient partnerships, and I wrote my own book. So my question was, what does this book bring that's new?

What it brings is convincing stories, clear explanations, and concrete how-to's. It's short, comprehensive, and convincing. I don't see how you can NOT read it if you're responsible for someone's care, including your own. It awakens you to possibilities and risks, leaving you aware and enabled.

(Disclosure: Cohen wrote a quote for the jacket of my book, which is selling a million times slower than hers. But her view is different from mine. I've worked for weeks figuring out how to express the differences here.)

I'll start with the author's challenge, then how she handles it, then my objections.

The first big challenge for an author in this space is that *people tend not to care* about quality until trouble hits. And when it does, there's an instinct to not rock the boat: people want to stay put, to believe they're getting the best care possible. It's not rational, but I've seen it repeatedly: people are loathe to step out of the boat they're in, especially in troubled waters.

It's hard to hear that care might fall short, but it can. And there are many causes: human fraillties, lagging technology, information overload, even business ethics.

And here's the author's dilemma: the better you prove this with story after story, the more readers might feel powerless and turn away.

So how do you reach people?

This is where Cohen's mass media skills come in. She knows how to tell a story concisely, dip into the underlying reasons, and come back up with some concrete "Here's what to do's." There's an art to this: her own stories about her baby and her mother sometimes brought me to tears, but I wasn't turned away as I sometimes am. I was left feeling *this stuff matters*, and patients can help. By wising up, thinking for themselves, and speaking up.

Objections: if Amazon had a 100-point scale I'd give it a 95, not 100. First, a stylistic nit: it's obviously written by a TV person. Time after time she injects, "Coming up, I'll tell you how you can xyz"; I could almost hear "...right after this message." But people who think "She can't be serious, she's on TV" are wrong: every one of her anecdotes rings true, based on the many people I've met at conferences, and almost all her "What you can do's" are spot-on.

I agree with Mack90's comment that dot-gov sites are not quite as valuable or perfect as the book suggests: they can lag behind or be editorially skewed, no guarantee of "bestness." I've seen plenty of outdated information about my own disease (kidney cancer) on sites that match her recommendations, including sites with seals such as HON. But I don't feel as strongly about this as Mack90 does.

Finally, I object pretty strenuously to the title of the opening chapter: "How to be a `bad' patient." I'm clear that Cohen's intent (as she said yesterday in the New York Times) was to reach people where they are - speaking into the mindset of the mass market she talks to professionally, where many people feel it's not good (or even safe) to question one's doctor. I get the point, but I would have preferred to word it "It's *OK* to be a `bad' patient." In my view, "how to be bad" is a rough start for a book about empowerment.

But that brings me back to the top: this book brings mass-market communication skills to an area where many of us have worked hard to wake people up. Our books have contained much more information from different angles, but this could be the breakthrough that opens millions of minds.

1 comment:

  1. Comprehensive review. Thankyou for taking the time to post it.


Your comments will be posted after they are reviewed by the moderator.