The Harbage Book Review – End of Year Gift Ideas

collage of book coversLooking for a gift for the health policy wonk in your life?  Or need a good read while you’re taking time off this holiday season? The Harbage team read a diverse set of books this year that, in addition to being entertaining, we feel share vital lessons about our health care system and convey important ideas for consideration as we shape the future of health care policy.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
(suggested by Lucy Pagel)

Atul Gawande explores how the US health system treats the terminally ill, providing narratives that help illustrate the important decisions that patients, families, and doctors need to make in the final months and years of life. The purpose of Gawande’s book is to raise the question of why the US health system is geared towards increasing the length of terminally ill patients’ lives, rather than improving their quality of life. An important, thought-provoking, and relatable read for all.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
(suggested by Molly Brassil, Hilary Haycock, Jennifer Ryan and Carol Backstrom)

America’s opioid epidemic is a big topic in health policy circles today as government agencies, providers, and families grapple with unprecedented levels of addiction in our country. This book is an exhaustively researched and beautifully written account of how we got here, and what the implications are for life in 21st century America. Quinones shows how changes to how our medical system thinks about and treats pain combined with a new model of drug trafficking helped fuel the epidemic.  He also explores how local communities and the health care system are working to help addicts recover. You won’t want to put it down.

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley
(suggested by Carol Backstrom)

Like Being Mortal, Final Gifts explores death and dying, this time from the perspective of a hospice nurse. Reading this book after my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer taught me how to have some very sad and ultimately life-affirming and positive conversations with him about his life, our relationship, and the terms under which he wished to die (which was at home, with no intervention). This experience allowed me to see the importance and beauty that can come with a peaceful death, something that is sadly missing from our world where last-ditch Herculean efforts in prolonging life is the norm. I’m convinced that if more people read and appreciated Final Gifts, attitudes and health policy support for end-of-life care would be filled with more kindness, respect, and comfort.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
(suggested by Bethany Snyder)

Lia Lee is a young Hmong girl who suffers from severe epilepsy. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1980 where she was born a few years later. The story centers on a small hospital in Merced, California, where doctors are challenged to manage Lia’s condition and communicate with her family due to language barriers, cultural disconnections, and the limits of modern medicine. Lia’s tragic story highlights a growing struggle in the American medical system as our country continues to diversify. American doctors must figure out how to provide care to patients with a very different world view and set of experiences, medical or otherwise. This book is captivating from the beginning and engages the reader to think critically about how Lia’s path could have been different.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
(suggested by Hilary Haycock and Jennifer Ryan)

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of the social determinants of health – the aspects of our lives that have huge impacts on our health but are disconnected from the health care system. Unstable or substandard housing is an increasing focus of safety net health systems as they try to improve the lives and the health outcomes of the people they serve. This book illustrates how the lack of affordable housing negatively impacts Americans living in poverty and has important lessons for health policy makers as they try to build programs to address the growing need for “whole person” care.