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Americans: Take Charge of Your Health!

Q and A With Dr. C. Everett Koop

Dr. C. Everett Koop is the former Surgeon General of the United States and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Public Health Service. He resigned in 1989 and continues to educate the public about health issues through his writings, the electronic media, and as Senior Scholar of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth.

An internationally known pediatric surgeon ( the first, in fact, in the United States) Dr. Koop is founder and Chairman of the Board of Empower Health Corporation, whose mission is to empower health consumers through the Internet to improve the quality of care they receive while lowering costs. He is on the board of numerous organizations and has received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Franceís Legion of Honor Medal.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Cornell University Medical College, he is the author of more than 230 articles and books on the practice of medicine and surgery, biomedical ethics, and health policy. His five-part series on health care reform won an Emmy in 1991.

Dr. Koop will be the keynote speaker January 26 at the dedication ceremonies for the new campus facilities at RTS/Orlando.


What are you trying to accomplish through your website Dr. Koopís Community?

A.    I have been convinced all of my life that an informed patient is the best patient. My advice to people has always been, "Take charge of your health." Now itís more important than ever because, with managed care, no one else is.

One of the main features of the website is the personal medical record file a person can create there. No one can access it except those people to whom its owner gives the password. The beauty of such a record is that a person can keep his complete medical history current. Most people now see several different specialists for various disorders; no doctor has their complete records. Or perhaps the need arises to see a physician while one is out-of-town; both the attending doctor and the doctor at home should have the patientís complete records. At our site, one will be able to enter the information with each doctorís visit, keeping the history current. It is especially helpful in keeping track of childrenís medical problems; Iíd like to see parents start it early so the child would have a life-long record..

Other features include an exhaustive prescription reference for drug interactions and a prescription refill service. Also, one can use the medical encyclopedia to research many disorders, learning their specific characteristics, how they are transmitted, and what treatments are available.

Finally we have a rating system which has reviewed some 5,000 medical websites. Only 1000 have been good enough to earn our recommendation. Over 12,000 medical sites populate the Web, and we donít want people wasting their time and money on bogus medical advice.


How has your faith influenced your work?

A.   I became a Christian at 29. My understanding of Scripture says that all Christians are called to serve the living and true God; I think that should be the vocation for all of us. When asked what his occupation lip Armour, founder of Armour Meat Products, replied, "Iím a witness for Jesus Christ, but I pack sausages to meet expenses." I feel called to my avocation as well as to my profession because I have wanted to be a doctor since I was six. Iíve wanted to be a surgeon since I was seven, even though I didnít know what a surgeon was. I simply wanted to use my hands to make people better, to prolong their lives, and ease their suffering.

I feel just as called to the practice of medicine as I do to be a follower of Christ. I have always tried to combine the two, and that has served me well. My chief message to Christian medical students is this: the earlier you begin to combine your faith and practice, the happier you will be because your failures and successes will make sense in light of Godís overall sovereignty.


Do you feel that integrating faith and practice is harder in todayís climate than before?

A.   Actually, itís easier than fifteen years ago. In the sixties and seventies students and nurses who talked about their faith were reprimanded. Today, the popularity of mind-body medicine has made faith and prayer very acceptable, opening the door for Christians in medicine to share their faith.


Did your experience as Surgeon General change your thinking? If so, how?

A.   Yes, it changed my thinking a great deal. I came to realize that I was the Surgeon General of all the citizens of the United States --not just the ones I agreed with. I had to gear my thinking to the health needs of everyone, even though at times that went against my personal beliefs.

Take, for example, the condom issue. I always preached to young people that abstinence was the only way to avoid AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease. For older Americans, I advised faithful, monogamous relationships. Those two messages are both moral and public health messages. However, for those who refused to heed these first two warnings and proceeded with a promiscuous life, the only measure I had to offer them was condoms, which are scarcely foolproof. Talking about such matters on national television was not easy for a grandfather who has been married for over fifty years! But I could no longer choose the people to whom I delivered a message; I delivered it to the world.


What are your principal concerns now regarding health issues in our country?

A.   My major concern is that we have more than 50 million people in the United States who do not have proper health insurance -- that figure will probably rise to 60 million by the turn of the century. These people are not the poor in America; they are the working poor. They have five or six jobs to make ends meet, none of which offers the benefit of a health plan. But the family does not make enough to afford personal health insurance, which, on todayís open market, runs about $6,000 a year for a family of four. Consequently, people are going without medical care for lack of money; many people give up food in order to buy the medicine that keeps them alive.

I donít really see a solution without spending huge sums of money, something no one is willing to do. The weight of the uninsured could get so heavy that the government steps in and produces a one-payer system, such as in Canada. In the beginning it might seem the answer, but, as history as proven, it will eventually result in poor care.


How can the church more effectively work with the medical community?

A.   Taking a look at history, the church has always been the safety net for the ill, the disenfranchised, and the poor. The original hospitals were Christian, as were the hospices, the poor houses, and the orphanages. A remnant of that still remains, but after 1964 Medicare and Medicaid changed the entire climate of social help. With these two programs we thought everyone, no matter how old or poor, was entitled to some kind of health insurance. This led the churches to say, "Hey, weíre not necessary any longer." That couldnít be further from the truth.

Many ways come to mind that Christians can get involved. Some churches have set up free clinics for the uninsured; others encourage their members to read to the blind or provide talking books to the deaf. Still others might ask members to sit with an Alzheimerís patient to give his caregivers a night -- or even a weekend -- off. Pastors could help in educating their congregations about death and how to approach it; doctors are not very good at this. They are proficient in prescribing radiation and chemotherapy, but seem to be very reluctant to talk about whatís really on the patientís mind, which is, "Iím going to die, am I not?"

Get Educated!

Dr. Koop and his staff are committed to helping people stay informed about health issues. Visit Dr. Koopís Community website at drkoop.com for:

  • up-to-date articles on medical issues
  • on-line prescription reference guide and refill service
  • on-line personal medical records
  • medical aids for the elderly
  • on-line medical encyclopedia
  • rating system for thousands of medical websites

Or visit epidemic.org to learn the latest information on the ever-growing Hepatitis C problem in the United States. Koop warns, "It affects people from all walks of life, in every state, in every country. And unless we do something about it soon, it will kill more people than AIDS."

The site offers detailed information about the virus and the disease, its effect on the body, available treatment, and testing procedures. The disease has already infected three times more people than AIDS. Those at risk include: anyone who received a blood transfusion prior to 1990, IV drug users, cocaine users, any health care worker with needle-stick injuries, and anyone with tattoos or body-piercing. Get tested and, if necessary, get treatment; you may have no symptoms for twenty years, but eventually many who are affected will progress to chronic liver disease, abdominal swelling, and death.

Finally, the work of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth can be found at koop.dartmouth.edu. The site includes ongoing research on medical issues in education.

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Last updated 12-22-98.