A Conversation With Julia Schopick, Patient Advocate and Health Writer

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About a year after her husband succumbed to cancer in 2005, Julia Schopick started the Honest Medicine blog, which would go on to win several awards. Her book, also titled Honest Medicine, published early this year, looks at four different life-saving treatments that aren't universally endorsed or accepted because, Schopick says, they're not the most profitable. "[M]ost conventional doctors prefer to use the more toxic, more expensive pharmaceuticals over the treatments I describe," she writes on her blog.

While the treatments Schopick presents can be controversial, there's no denying her success in using at least one, Silverlon: It kept her husband Tim alive for three-and-a-half years after his second brain tumor surgery. This treatment, and others she found for him earlier on, kept him alive for at least a decade beyond the most optimistic initial prognosis of his doctors. Here, Schopick discusses how the most expensive treatments aren't always the best, the power of social media to connect patients and doctors, and why people shouldn't always believe what they hear and see.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I tell them that I am a public relations consultant, patient advocate, and healthcare writer. I started out as a PR consultant in 1985, promoting private practitioners and other professionals to their potential clients and patients. I still do this today. But in 1990, I added patient advocate to my repertoire when my husband Tim Fisher was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. Thanks to my efforts and advocacy on his behalf, many of the treatments I found for him helped him to live twelve years beyond his initial prognosis. My role as patient advocate caused me to become more critical of our healthcare system, and I started to write articles and columns that were published in professional medical publications. Now, I also give presentations to physician and patient groups.

In 2006, I created my blog, HonestMedicine.com, to educate the public about dysfunctions in the medical system, as well as about cutting-edge treatments their doctors might not tell them about. In 2011, my book, Honest Medicine: Effective, Time-Tested, Inexpensive Treatments for Life-Threatening Diseases, was published.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about healthcare?

The Internet for research and online social networking for sharing ideas. Before the advent of the Internet, many patients did not take a very active role in their own healthcare. But now, they go online to find treatments that may help them. And, once they find these treatments, they join discussion groups and social networking sites to compare notes with other patients with the same conditions. I find this an exhilarating development. I believe it will change healthcare for the better. Indeed, I believe it already has.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Because of some marketing by pharmaceutical and medical device companies, many people think that more expensive is better. They demand MRIs when they might not be necessary. And they want the most expensive medications when lifestyle changes might be more effective.

Case in point: One of the treatments I write about in my book is Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN), an off-label use of a drug that was approved at a much higher dose by the FDA in 1984. Now, many doctors are prescribing it at very low doses for autoimmune diseases, HIV/AIDS, and some cancers. Multiple sclerosis patients are among LDN's most vocal advocates. Low Dose Naltrexone costs less than $40 a month; the drugs that are advertised for multiple sclerosis (and that most doctors therefore know about and prescribe) cost approximately $2,000 to $4,000 a month. According to several of the contributors to my book, LDN is more effective, and less toxic than the more expensive drugs.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the world of healthcare?

Again, the Internet, and, with it, online social networking. Doctors are now being presented with some very impressive information about treatments they might not know about, thanks to these powerful online channels of communication. And, I am happy to say that many doctors are reading the information their patients bring them, and are learning from their patients. This is real progress.

What's a healthcare trend that you wish would go away?

As you probably noticed, I am not a big fan of pharmaceutical companies that heavily market products that don't work as well as other, less profitable treatments that might work better. Yet, I am not one who believes that pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to advertise. I just wish patients and doctors would be more discerning, and not believe everything they see, hear, or read.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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