The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 15, 1999
Mar. 15, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 26


And Now, the Readable Doctor

A new health book brings consumers the expertise of more than 110 faculty

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Michael Klag, director of General Internal Medicine at the School of Medicine and a practicing physician, says he is used to fielding calls from family and friends in regard to health issues: Is there enough vitamin D in my diet? How do I know if I have measles or a bad skin irritation? I just left the doctor and I'm still not sure I understand what he told me to do about my arthritis. ...

Klag admits that even as an informed consumer he, too, often has questions upon leaving the doctor's office.

And he bets that, in order to answer these daily medical questions, many people would find it useful to have their own health-care "hotline."

The Office of Consumer Health Information has tried to provide just that with its recently published Johns Hopkins Family Health Book, an encyclopedic 1,650-page reference work.

Ron Sauder, director of the Office of Consumer Health Information, and editor Michael Klag, director of General Internal Medicine, with the new Johns Hopkins Family Health Book.

The exhaustive guide is designed to offer information on various medical conditions, medications and procedures and is the culmination of a three-year effort on the part of more than 110 medical faculty representing each of the three schools on the East Baltimore campus.

Klag, who served as the book's editor in chief, says the Family Health Book might be the next best thing to a live-in doctor.

"That was our vision--a comprehensive call to your friend who is a doctor," says Klag, the David M. Levine Professor of Medicine.

The book contains 35 chapters that are organized into five parts: "Staying Healthy," "Health Over the Life Course," "First Aid and Emergency Care," "Body Systems and Disorders" and "Becoming a Partner in Your Health Care." Topics range from what to do when bitten by a poisonous spider to recognizing the signs and symptoms of a liver disorder. There are also sections on nutrition, exercise and the 90 most commonly prescribed drugs.

The book, published by HarperCollins, is written in detailed and easy-to-read language and features a multitude of tables and original illustrations created by three artists from the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, Tim Phelps, David Rini and Corinne Sandone.

Each entry breaks down the topic from the basics of What is it? to when a person should call a doctor. In the section on gout, for example, a reader will find out symptoms to look for, what kind of tests physicians do to diagnose it and how the ailment can be both treated and prevented.

Klag says putting together a book this comprehensive that could be understood by a general consumer was quite a challenge.

"The hardest part of the initial phase was taking the medical jargon and translating it into common usage," Klag says. "When you step away from jargon, you always run the risk of being less precise and introducing inaccuracies. And the No. 1 thing for us was accuracy. That was a tremendous motivating factor."

The guide, which hit the shelves on Jan. 1, is also extremely up-to-date, as changes were still being made in mid-November. To keep the information current, Internet links are given on several entries so that users can get the latest medical findings.

The effort to amass the wealth of information included in the book began when Klag and Ron Sauder, director of the Office of Consumer Health Information, first met with the clinical department directors in the School of Medicine to get a sense of what they felt should be included and to solicit their nominations of expert reviewers. In doing it this way, Klag says the book's editors were able to hear not only from physicians but also from nurses, epidemiologists and health service researchers.

Klag credits the book's associate editors--Ada R. Davis of Nursing, Robert S. Lawrence of Public Health and John K. Niparko of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery--with invaluable contributions from their professional viewpoints as well.

One of the editorial team's missions, Sauder says, was to make sure that as many people as possible had input into the final product.

"This is a good representation of all the brain power on this campus," Sauder says.

The project was part of an effort to increase recognition of the Johns Hopkins name throughout the world while at the same time providing a comprehensive health reference book for consumers. Klag says the book isn't intended to supplant medical care or to foster self-diagnosis but rather to educate the consumer and offer tips on prevention.

Since the tome bears the Hopkins name, Klag adds that the editorial team certainly felt the pressure to produce a first-class effort that offered more than did existing medical reference guides.

"If we didn't do a good job, people would have told us," says Klag, who recounts an anecdote that happened about two years into the project, when he was watching an animated movie with his kids.

"It was sort of Disney-esque, but it wasn't Disney," Klag says. "I sat there and said, "Is this the kind of book we are going to have? Sort of good?' We really wanted to produce a book that deserves the Hopkins name."

For his part, Klag is very proud of the finished product but glad that the work is over. He recalls those hundreds of one-hour-plus conference calls between contributors and editors, and the days his office was littered with manuscript chapters.

"This book was an emotional roller coaster," Klag says. "Someone told me when I took this job that editing a book is like giving birth to barbed wire. This work was a lot harder than that."

The Johns Hopkins Family Health Book joins a list of other publications--White Papers, The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health Over 50 and The Johns Hopkins Complete Home Encyclopedia of Drugs--produced by Hopkins in a consumer health publishing program that was launched 10 years ago.

This guide is the first in a series that will include The Johns Hopkins Women's Health Book, coming in 2000, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Health Book, to be published sometime in 2001.

The first volume, which retails at $49.95, had an original print run of 140,000 copies and has "been doing very well" in the stores, according to Sauder. It is also a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Royalties will be shared among the participating schools.

The guide to date has received some very favorable press. One review, appearing in the Los Angeles Times, said some people will find the book "engrossing enough to start at page 1 and just keep on reading."

Sauder adds, "We want to bottle that one."