Want to become an expert patient—Help is around

If you are a person who feels compelled to act when someone you know has an illness, there’s a name for you: a patient advocate.

And if you’ve always wanted to find ways to protect the health of your close ones (and yours) but felt ill-equipped when you face a doctor, help is round the corner. Literally.

HELP—Health Education Library for People—remains a well-kept secret in the Mumbai healthcare landscape. Only a few know of this unique library devoted to helping people stay healthy and draw the best in medical care.

HELP sits on the fifth floor of a modest building tucked away in an obscure gully, at a nook around Hotel Hindmata, the point where the Bombay Central bridge drops into Nana Chowk in Tardeo, central Mumbai. Its founders, Dr. Aniruddha and Dr. Anjali Malpani, a gynecologist couple, meant it as a way to help people take charge of health.

A believer in self care, I’ve always wanted to visit HELP, ever since I read about it in a Times of India column, sixteen years ago. A year after the library was opened to the public. But we all put good things away for tomorrow. Until someone close gives us a nudge.

Yesterday Bindu, my close friend and colleague at Pepper, said simply, “Let’s visit HELP.” We were nearby at Bombay Central to attend the World Stroke Day function at Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai Central. Off we went!

We entered the library, depositing our bags on a grey steel rack by the main door. We were greeted by a tall, smiling person at the reception who asked us what we were interested in. We said we wanted to look around, get a feel of the place. Still smiling, waving us on, he retreated into his seat.

HELP has a long passage that connects its four zones: the book racks, the reading areas, the chief librarian’s desk and the talk room. Yes, HELP has an expert talk about a health topic every afternoon at three o’clock, and a schedule for the next 30 days! The design of HELP—its layout and its services—is true to its purpose.

Bindu walks from room to room browsing books from the rack, signaling me whenever she found something that held her interest. I pick a book that catches my attention, “The Take-Charge Patient” by Martine Ehrenclou and settle on a chair by a large wooden table.

Martine is an author, a speaker, a patient advocate. While writing this book, she developed a crippling chronic pain. She turned an advocate for her own health, using every idea she would put down in her book. After eleven doctors failed to diagnose her illness, Martine found her diagnosis and the doctor to treat her. She’s now free from her pain.

Looking up, I glanced at the racks of self-help books neatly arranged in that room. I couldn’t help wonder how well HELP propagates what Martine has written in her book.

They’re both making it the work of their lives to show people ways to become their own advocate and draw the best from the medical system. And turn people into skilled patients who get what they need by being wholly involved in their care, not passively accepting what the system hands out.

Everyone can practice to be an expert patient. We are one when we: 1) Acknowledge we do need the help of the medical system when faced with illness, than depend on self-care and home remedies. 2) Learn to tell the signs of our illness and find out what they mean. 3) Search for the right doctor to treat the illness. 4) Write a short note on our problem, listing the signs of illness correctly. 5) Arrange our medical records with care for the visit to the doctor. 6) Go prepared with our questions to the doctor. 7) Take along a trusted person who will listen with care what the doctor has to say. 8) Diligently follow the doctors advice, once we’ve clarified our doubts. 9) Follow up on any unanswered questions from the previous visit. 10) And, above all, respect the doctor and her clinic staff.

In times of illness, being prepared is everything. When we take charge of ourselves as a patient, we prompt doctors to put in their best.

If you want to know how you can learn to become an expert patient—for the sake of your family’s health—HELP is a great place to start.

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