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WebMD produces a daily e-newsletter called Inside WebMD. Aimed at the layperson, it is free and informative, and contains tips to help readers identify, understand, and manage common medical problems.

However, the December 18 issue included a lifestyle article that sheds light on a common problem when medical organizations promote healthy behaviors. This is of course a great idea that should be welcomed, but doctors seem to have a hard time letting go of responsibility towards patients. In fact, they sometimes unintentionally bind patients to a parent-child relationship when they label exercise, nutritious eating habits, and other health-promoting activities as medicine. Let me give you an example.

WebMD’s prevention article included the following:

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1. Lifestyle medicine is an evidence-based approach to treating, reversing, and preventing chronic disease by addressing its root causes, including diet, exercise, sleep, and social support. Health professionals trained in lifestyle medicine will provide specific prescriptions for exercise and diet along with medication.

2.WebMD! Here’s a little breaking news: A wellness lifestyle is not lifestyle medicine. There is nothing medicinal or medical about it. Skills and behaviors associated with sanity, exuberance, exercise and nutrition (sportsmanship), and personal liberties (liberty) need not be tied to, approved by, or under the control of medical personnel. In addition, we do not require any special or other prescriptions from doctors or other people for exercise and nutrition.

Prevention is good, and enrichment is even better. Physicians (and medical organizations) can and should encourage both, but the latter is independent of medical concerns.

By linking lifestyle to medical care, WebMD shifts some of the responsibility onto caregivers, when in fact healthy lifestyle is driven by the belief that it is up to us consumers to make daily choices that enable and maintain well-being. Physicians and all manner of experts can provide advice and care, but living a healthy lifestyle must be a passion, a personal commitment, and a rewarding source of satisfaction for the individual. Lifestyle is no more a medicine than medicine is a lifestyle.

Of course, WebMD isn’t the first group to scoff at the contradictory term lifestyle medicine. I’ve seen it many times over several decades, and on a few occasions persuaded well-meaning offenders to choose a more appropriate, non-dysfunctional description of medical support for healthy exercise, diet, and other decisions.

Even Wikipedia acknowledges the phrase, noting that it is a branch of medicine concerned with the study, prevention, and treatment of disorders caused by lifestyle factors. However, that’s very different from WebMD’s use of lifestyle medicine. Coaching and supporting people on better ways to shop and cook healthy food should be part of medical practice; To claim that this is the role of doctors is to take a good thing to another level that benefits neither the doctor nor the patient.

In summary, WebMD needs a new catchphrase for its interest or involvement in promoting healthy habits and practices.

Thanks to Donald Ardell

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