For decades Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions was the only textbook available for college classes on the subject, and it is still the best: the most comprehensive and the most reliable. It was first published in 1976, and it has clearly had staying power. An updated 9th edition has just been released. The authors have changed over the years: this edition’s authors are Stephen Barrett, William London, Manfred Kroger, Harriet Hall, and Robert Baratz. It’s an invaluable compendium of information that would be useful to any consumer, and it’s unfortunate that McGraw-Hill is marketing it as an expensive textbook ($163).

What exactly is “consumer health”? The book’s preface and the table of contents are available here. They will provide the long answer to that question. The short answer is:

The book’s fundamental purpose is to provide trustworthy information and guidelines to enable people to select health products and services intelligently.

Chapters cover how to separate fact from fiction; how to spot frauds and quackery; advertising issues; dental care; mental health care; a science-based overview of the “CAM” movement, with a separate chapter on chiropractic; nutrition fads, fallacies and scams; weight control; fitness; prevention; major chronic diseases; drugs; skin care; medical devices; issues related to death; insurance; accreditation and licensing of health care facilities and professionals; consumer laws; and much more. It includes self-care advice. It offers historical perspectives and illustrative anecdotes, pictures of bogus devices, examples of misleading advertising, and even some cartoons. A handy appendix lists trustworthy sources of information.

It could serve as a valuable reference for anyone, even sophisticated health professionals. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned during the revision process: I knew about health and CAM, but I was not as well informed about some of the other subjects covered, like legislation and regulation. Now I know much more.

As the long revision process proceeded chapter by chapter, I frequently read statements that made me wonder “Is that really true?” I looked them up to find that they were indeed true.  As lead author, Stephen Barrett was obsessively meticulous; and we challenged each other in numerous e-mail discussions about whether a given statement could be documented and was adequately based on current evidence. More than once, I told him “That’s not exactly true! You can’t say that.” And after looking at my evidence, he either changed his mind and modified the text or persuaded me that I was wrong. It’s a real pleasure when two professionals can resolve a disagreement by simply examining the evidence, with no interference from belief systems or egos. The total antithesis of what usually happens with CAM proponents.

I don’t take credit for this book, but I’m proud of my contributions to it, and I can vouch for its accuracy. I’m not touting it for financial gain: I was paid a small fixed fee and will get no royalties. Nor am I trying to blow my own horn. The text existed long before I got involved, and my contributions were small. I do, however, personally vouch for the information in the book. It is fact-checked and science-based, and there’s not a word of woo anywhere in it.


Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.