Many of us use simple home remedies to treat the common cold, sore throat or other minor ailments.
Some of us also try to avoid becoming sick by adopting healthy diets and lifestyles while others take vitamin supplements to improve their health. There are also those who take preventive measures such as going for regular health screenings and vaccinations.
These can be classified as self-care, which is what people can do to take care of their health.
However, self-care is not just about drinking chicken soup to nurse a cold, gargling with salt water to relieve a sore throat or popping paracetamol tablets to get rid of a fever.
It encompasses health, hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environmental and socio-economic factors. All these factors have to work in unison.
Furthermore, individuals, families and communities need to have the ability to carry out various self-care activities as well as be empowered to carry out self-care.
A recent British Medical Association survey found that a quarter of general practitioners (GPs) in England believe self-care is the most effective way of reducing their workload. If correctly practised, self-care can ensure better use of medicines and health services, empower patients and help GPs focus on the patients who most need their help.
We need to take responsibility for our own health for effective self-care, though we should always seek medical advice from a doctor or other healthcare professionals when needed.
PROVIDING CARE TO DEPENDANTS
The World Health Organisation defines self-care as "the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider".
To keep healthy, we not only need to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly, we should also participate in social activities. These activities help to keep our minds active and sharp, as well as prevent dementia and depression.
Studies suggest that people who maintain social networks and close friendships live longer on average than those who isolate themselves.
Getting immunised against infectious diseases is also a necessity, especially for children, pregnant women and the elderly.
We need to practise good hygiene such as keeping our homes clean and taking standard precautions such as washing our hands, avoiding smoking and drugs of abuse, and practising safe sex.
Self-care goes beyond the self to include providing care to our dependants such as young children, the elderly and the disabled.
Help should be rendered to people with disabilities in the family or community so that they may regain their physical or mental abilities. This could be in the form of speech, occupational or physical rehabilitation, and appropriate medication.
Some may need counselling on how to cope with their disabilities or health condition. And when family members show symptoms such as persistent pain, fever or low mood, we, as responsible caregivers, should advise them to discontinue self-care and seek medical help.
People with chronic illnesses should be educated on how to manage their conditions on their own.
Evidence from controlled clinical trials suggests that:
•When it comes to improving clinical outcomes, self-management skills training is more effective than merely giving the patient information about his condition;
•In some circumstances, self-management skills can even help to reduce healthcare costs for patients with certain conditions such as asthma and arthritis.
So the key to helping chronic disease patients manage their condition is not only to educate them on their condition but also to equip them with the technical skills to manage it on their own.
These patients should also not practise self-care in silos. They should be linked up with medical professionals and support groups to better manage their conditions.
Self-care does not preclude the involvement of a doctor or health professional as partners in the care of the patient.
We live in a digital era where people are getting more and more tech savvy. So we will find more people seeking information on websites and trying out self-care on their own.
Others will make use of telehealth tools to monitor their own health and communicate online with healthcare professionals. This will further enhance the patient-professional partnership in self-care.
From a broader perspective, if enhanced self-care can help to reduce unnecessary hospitalisations and healthcare costs, it is worthy of further study.
Promoting self-care in the community calls for a paradigm shift in the way healthcare professionals care for their patients.
They need to empower their patients to practise self-care as well as create an environment of patient-centred care.
In supporting self-care, healthcare professionals are also helping to boost people's confidence and self-esteem when it comes to taking charge of their own health and well-being. This will lead to a win-win situation for both patients and healthcare professionals alike.
• Dr K. Thomas Abraham is a healthcare consultant and the former CEO of social enterprise Sata CommHealth.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.