Richard Besser hears it every day: "Hey, doc. Got a minute?"
His patients want to know if skipping breakfast will help them lose weight. If they need 30 minutes of exercise a day to stay healthy. If they should be worried about dangerous prescription drugs.
Besser gets it. Before joining ABC News as chief health and medical editor in 2009, he spent nearly two decades with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a stint as acting director during the H1N1 pandemic. Health is confusing and complicated, he says, and everywhere we look, we're bombarded with conflicting information.
Cue his new book, "Tell Me the Truth, Doctor." Throughout the 244-page guide, Besser tackles nearly 70 common health questions, squashing myths and providing answers that are often counterintuitive. "You can't get a house-call in very many places anymore," he says. "I'm hoping this book provides some of that. It's a place where people can turn with confusing questions that maybe they're uncomfortable asking their doctor."
Among the questions he addresses:
Does your doctor know best? Not necessarily. "I think the adage, 'Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince' rings true," Besser says. He recalls the urologist he went to for his vasectomy. Since the man was chair of the department, Besser assumed he'd be the best, despite seeming a bit disconnected. It turned out he was a lab scientist who hadn't done more than a few procedures in decades - and when he stitched a bit too much, Besser had to return for a second surgery. "I don't think your doctor does know best," he says. "The person who knows best about your health is you. And your doctor should be someone who can provide you with guidance and information, so you can make decisions." A good doctor, he says, is one who respects you and empowers you to own your health.
The more tests, the better. Right? "There's a misconception that if your doctor is ordering a lot of tests, he must be really good," Besser says. "I think it's exactly the opposite." If your doctor isn't spending a decent chunk of time talking with you - and instead "orders a bunch of tests as a shotgun approach" - he may not be the best choice. A one-on-one discussion that allows room for difficult health questions is a far superior approach, Besser says.
Do cell phones cause brain cancer? About 227 million Americans own cell phones, and use them every day. And many are worried about the consequences of such close contact with a device that emits radiation. But data don't support a connection between cell phones and brain cancer, Besser says. If you're really concerned that your iPhone is harming your health, turn it off next time you get in the car. "Using a cell phone while driving is equivalent to driving drunk," Besser says. "When you get in the car, put it in the glove compartment."
Is bottled water better than tap? In 2009, people in the United States spent $10 billion drinking more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water. But they may have been doing themselves and the environment a disservice: "The systems in place for monitoring tap water are much stronger than those that monitor bottled water," Besser says. Plus, water bottles end up cluttering landfills. Stick with reusable stainless steel or BPA-free bottles, and if you're sensitive to the taste of tap water, use a filter and change the cartridge regularly.
Is the Internet a good place to find medical information? You get a diagnosis. You Google it. And you're flooded with frightening information that may or may not be relevant, let alone accurate. "I think the Internet is a terrific thing for your health, but if you don't know how to navigate it, it can also provide you with very misleading information," Besser says. "Anyone with a computer can set up a health website in 10 minutes. How do you know which are giving you credible information and which are just giving you your neighbor's opinion?" He recommends asking your doctor for credible information and beginning with government websites like cdc.gov. And remember: You should never buy a medical product on the Internet without first talking to your doctor. The same goes for providing personal medical information online.
Is 30 minutes of exercise a day necessary to stay healthy? Nope. "That's great if you've got 30 minutes, but that's a lot for everyone to accomplish," Besser says. And research suggests that even 15 minutes of exercise a day is linked with a three-year increase in life expectancy and 14 percent reduction in risk of death, compared with a sedentary lifestyle. Don't be put off by recommendations that tell you to do more; simply doing something is helpful.
Are name-brand drugs better than generic? No. The generic forms could save you thousands of dollars a year, without affecting your health, Besser says. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that generics are chemically identical to and as safe and effective as their name-brand counterparts. You can feel confident you're getting the same quality, while also saving money.
Does counting sheep cure insomnia? No. Research suggests that counting sheep is so repetitive the brain will look for distractions and break the relaxation cycle. A better idea: Banish negative thoughts, and visualize calming scenes. If you wake up with something on your mind, write it down or tell someone what's worrying you. Besser used to wake his wife to tell her what was bothering him, but he's since learned to keep a pad by his bed, so he can jot it down instead.