Thursday, Apr. 15, 2010

Chief Medical Officer

I have taught health for 25 years and have time and time again seen the remarkable power women have to keep their families well. Statistics may prove that women make most of the health care decisions in the home, but simple observation reveals much more. In my heart-surgery practice, the most meaningful conversations I have about cases are with wives, daughters, mothers and sisters — even if it's the husbands, sons, fathers or brothers who are the patients. I see the way women seem to know instinctively what to do when health is on the line, and while I avoid taking generalizations as facts, I would stake my reputation on the fact that this ability exists. I know I am always wisest when I listen to my wife, mother or daughters.

To me, the question isn't whether women are innately good at such things, but why. More important, how can they get better at it still and, in the process, teach the family healthy habits?

It's a rule of human nature that we change our behavior based more on how we feel than how we think. Understanding a problem intellectually is never enough. Women are better able to integrate

this profoundly important insight, probably because the cycle of pregnancy, nurturing and child rearing forces an in-depth understanding of emotions. Men, by contrast, come at things in a more linear, rational way, which is fine but also limiting. So, women, you have the advantage. In essence, you are in charge. Here are ways to put that to work:

1. Practice — and teach — good health habits through role-playing and games. Sound hard? Well, this is also called playing with your family. Every moment is an opportunity to learn. Either you can force your child to remember that George Washington was our first President or you can create a bedtime story of intrigue and wonder about a fictitious child who met Washington on his way to Valley Forge. Which do you think children are more likely to retain? The same strategy works when it comes to lessons about taking vitamins or washing hands during flu season.

2. Be a good role model. Your children learn to take care of themselves by watching how you take care of yourself. If they see you practicing yoga or Pilates, they will assume it's something they should do too. Parents, especially moms, teach kids basic habits from a very young age, whether they intend to or not. Strategies for sleeping, hygiene and coping are learned more through observation than through instruction. No amount of verbal directives will outweigh what your children see you do each day.

3. Healthy eating depends on making it easy for everyone to do the right thing. Kids usually want to eat junk, but you can win that war by making the difficult decisions in the supermarket — where you can plan an entire week's menu — rather than in the kitchen, where hungry children roam like lions, tearing open cabinet doors. Have a supply of healthy options, and you make the hungry prowling foolproof. And remember the importance of breakfast, a meal that can increase academic performance by 20%. Again, make things fun. In our house, we offer a magic drink in which we hide the day's vitamins and pretend it's a fantastic elixir. Yes, sometimes the healthy thing isn't always the easy thing, even in the Oz household.

4. Whenever possible, plan your family's health care in advance. The most effective chief medical officer in any home has an in-depth knowledge of each family member's medical history and stores all medical records in a central location. That makes it easier to book everyone's doctor's appointments at the beginning of the year. Being in charge also means you are the main advocate as family members navigate the health care system. For children, the responsibility is obvious. But I guarantee you can tell your husband 10 times to get a colonoscopy and he won't do it, but if you tell him he has an appointment on Friday, you'll be discussing his results on Saturday.

5. Post the family health laws as conspicuously as possible. Whether it's bedtime rules, snack rules or get-outside-and-play rules, display everything in a prominent place, like on the fridge. When something is published as the law of the land, it depersonalizes the enforcement. You aren't an ogre because you say it's time for lights-out. The rule book says it is. Also, almost all Americans live within 2 miles (3.2 km) of a park, so find one close to you and schedule outings. These provide even more opportunities to discuss health matters with your family, to share healthy food and enjoy one another. Remember, as chief medical officer, you run the show!

Mehmet Oz is vice chairman and professor of surgery at Columbia University, a best-selling author and the host of the nationally syndicated television talk show The Dr. Oz Show