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San Francisco • If you know someone who likes a little controversy in their page-turners, don't forget to check out your favorite bookseller's health section for last-minute gift ideas.
Health care is likely to resurface next year as a major topic ahead of the presidential election.
A handful of books published this year seek to challenge or explain how our standards of medical care in the United States have emerged. One provides a snapshot of what it's like to provide care for young people who don't have a refrigerator to maintain their medications or walls around them to prevent animal bites.
What follows is by no means a complete list of all the worthy titles. But in case you haven't seen them, here are six interesting books you might consider giving a loved one this holiday season, or checking out for yourself.
Five are nonfiction and one is historical fiction.
Ask Me Why I Hurt, by Randy Christensen with Rene Denfeld (Broadway Books; 265 pages; $24.99 hardcover) • A pediatrician in Phoenix, Ariz., gets a crash course in the things medical schools don't teach their students, such as what it takes to provide care for homeless kids, and delivers a haunting account of his education on the front lines. Filling the pages are heartbreaking stories of children with preventable illnesses that fester into life-threatening infections, those with unspeakable scars from severe abuse and many who are forced to sell their bodies to survive. Christensen, medical director of a mobile clinic known as Big Blue, learns how to treat ailments common to abandoned kids who have to sleep in the wild, like extracting cockroaches from ear canals. But he also learns to fight political inertia and a bureaucracy that keeps these destitute children from receiving the insurance they desperately need. Ask Me Why I Hurt shines a light on a growing and too-often invisible crisis made much worse by the Great Recession. The number of homeless children jumped by more than a third to 1.6 million between 2007 and 2010, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. This timely book also shows the toll taken on those who choose to care for the most vulnerable among us.
Next Medicine, by Walter M. Bortz II (Oxford University Press; 205 pages; $34.95 hardcover) • There are no sacred cows in this book that takes a clear-eyed look at all that's gone wrong in the practice of U.S. medicine in the past few decades. Bortz takes a detailed history of the patient, current medicine, and presents the possible paths to recovery. His recommendation: Nothing short of a total revolution. He proposes upending the fee-for-service system that so often rewards high-tech procedures at the expense of safer, less costly preventive care and health maintenance, but unlike other books, he lays out his arguments with exhaustive data, including some of his own original research. He also sprinkles in some humor and personal anecdotes from his storied career. Bortz, an octogenarian marathon runner, geriatrician and Stanford University professor of medicine, isn't giving up on medicine; he dedicates his book to the "renaissance" of his profession. But he's clearly run out of patience with its litany of deficiencies and fears the human and financial costs of its failures. His book is a call to action not easily forgotten.
Remedy and Reaction, by Paul Starr (Yale University Press; 281 pages; $28.50 hardcover) • If you're wondering how health care came to be such a polarizing issue for Americans, with poll after poll showing a nearly split opinion on Obama's health-care reform law, this book delivers an insightful political analysis. Starr argues that America has become ensnared in a "policy trap," with just enough people benefiting from the status quo, either through coverage like Medicare or profits to industry, that they prevent any meaningful change that would help the millions who are left out of access to basic care. As the political rhetoric heats up again in an election year and as the Supreme Court decides on a key mechanism of the overhaul, this book traces the history of how we arrived at the fragmented, costly system we have and reminds us of what's at stake.
Open Wound, by Jason Karlawish (University of Michigan Press; 261 pages; $24 hardcover) • After a fur trapper is shot in an accident in northern Michigan in 1822, William Beaumont, an army surgeon, fought to treat the young man despite pressure not to run up a tab doing so. But what appears to be altruism develops into something far more complicated as the open stomach wound of Beaumont's patient, Alexis St. Martin, proves scientifically useful to the doctor and potentially to millions of other patients. In this historical novel, the two become entwined in each other's lives medically, financially and even legally. Karlawish sketches their fraught relationship in the ensuing decades artfully, with clear relevance to the ethical questions of modern medicine.
Your Medical Mind, by Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband (Penguin Press; 218 pages; $27.95 hardcover) • It can be hard to know your true attitudes about medical trade-offs until you're presented with a diagnosis or a warning from your doctor. Suddenly, conflicting health information on risks and benefits and pressure from well-meaning family members can make it even harder to figure out your preferences. Should you receive or forgo certain drugs or medical treatments? How much confidence in high-tech medicine, your peers' experiences and your favorite doctors is justified? How do you identify which subtle internal and external factors could be influencing your decision making? Groopman and Hartzband talked to patients with a wide spectrum of opinions, and they provide insight into how to make complex medical decisions that you can live with.
Our Bodies, Ourselves, (Simon & Schuster; 825 pages; $26 paperback) • Now in its ninth edition, this newly updated reference book from the Boston Women's Health Book Collective covers a wide range of women's health topics with sensitivity, resourcefulness and compassion. On issues where the science is still murky, it injects a healthy dose of skepticism without creating undue confusion. It has something for nearly everyone, whether it's typical questions of how to navigate the health-care system, assess today's birth-control options or handle menopause, or more urgent concerns such as what to expect at the hospital if you've been raped. For many women, this is a handy guide to have at the ready, no matter what stage of life you're in or what circumstances you may find yourself in.