Chronic disease management is a big issue in modern medical care: Hypertension, diabetes, asthma, obesity and allergies are among the conditions that can severely impinge on people’s lives, raise their medical bills and even lead to premature death. It is not surprising that health-care practitioners may try to frighten people with chronic disease into changing their lifestyles and getting care: Lose weight or you may have a heart attack. Manage your insulin or you may lose a limb. Take these meds or you may have a stroke.
Heather Alva, a medical student, offers a more positive strategy: Introduce new patients to what she calls mentors — older patients who have successfully lived with chronic disease. Give them someone to emulate.
Writing on the doctors’ blog KevinMD.com, Alva says that she has had diabetes for 15 years and was first scandalized and then heartened when she attended a panel discussion by older patients. One of them, a jovial, white-bearded attorney with a veteran’s pin in his lapel, had an amputated leg, a “comorbidity most patients with diabetes are taught to live their lives avoiding, even dreading.” But the attorney winked as he said, “That leg was a damn nuisance anyhow, at least near the end. They don’t take the legs that still work.”
That sense of optimism became a key part of Alva’s personal approach to her disease — not because she took less care of herself but because she adopted “elements of self-forgiveness and resilience so that I can pursue health in whatever capacity I am able.”
Instead of employing scare tactics to motivate patients, she writes, it would be “a kinder practice to link our patients to other patients: successful individuals who lead rich, happy, fulfilling lives.”