Savvy Consumer Tips

If you have health insurance, you probably don’t pay much attention to how much different medical procedures cost. But if you don’t have insurance or use out-of-network doctors, it’s helpful to know ahead of time so you don’t get stuck with an unexpected bill. Here’s the good news: A nonprofit called Fair Health has a website (fairhealthconsumer.org) where you can find estimates of the average prices charged for medical and dental procedures in your area.

I just looked up the cost of a physical therapy evaluation for my particular zip code. The chart showed the estimated charge, estimated reimbursement (which was dependent on my plan) and out-of-pocket charge to me. When I checked the costs for a gold crown, I was asked questions about the type of crown before getting a rough estimate of $1,300. Don’t forget to check out the Healthcare Resources section and the useful Glossary of Terms.

I know someone who cuts up fresh lemons, sprinkles sugar on top of them and then sucks the sweetened juice out of the wedges. His teeth are gray and losing their enamel…and he doesn’t know why. I decided to call Dr. James Mattingly, a Diamond Certified dentist, for advice. He says tooth enamel is one of the strongest substances in the human body. However, beverages that combine acidic ingredients with sugar can destroy your enamel, and there’s little you can do to replace it.

Dr. Mattingly notes that many people are unaware of how bad this combination really is. Some enamel-destroying drinks include soda, energy drinks and lemonade. “Coffee and tea drinkers should avoid using sweeteners,” he adds. “When someone puts sugar or flavored syrup in coffee or tea and drinks it throughout the day, it can be very destructive to their enamel.”

Don Moe, President of All Things Green, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says you can still plant your vegetables at this time of year, but it’s best to buy starter plants rather than seeds. If you’re a beginner, he recommends using a raised bed. Lay out wire mesh first, and then add organic compost, topsoil and organic fertilizer.

Mr. Moe warns against planting your plants too close together—you need to allow room for each plant to reach its full potential. It’s a good idea to know which plants need sun and which do better in the shade. For watering, an inexpensive soaker hose is the best way to avoid fungus problems. If snails and slugs are wreaking havoc on your new garden, you can greatly reduce their numbers by spreading some coffee grounds out on the soil.

Summer brings many of the things we enjoy most, like swimming and barbecues. Unfortunately, it also often brings sunburns and bug bites. Enjoy the outdoors this summer by using the right skin protection products. According to Consumer Reports, your sunscreen should be water resistant and have an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Your insect repellent shouldn’t contain more than 30 percent DEET, which is short for diethyl-meta-toluamide, the active ingredient in most repellents.

A combination of sunscreen and insect repellent might sound like a good idea, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against buying an all-in-one product. The need for liberal amounts of sunscreen during the day could expose users to more DEET than necessary. Conversely, there may be times—such as an evening barbecue—when a bug repellent is needed but not a sunscreen. Visit www.consumerreports.org to learn more.

According to audiologist Mark Sanford, owner of CSG Better Hearing Center, LLC, a Diamond Certified company, 75 percent of people who have hearing loss don’t do anything about it. Here are some early signs that you might be losing your hearing: 1) you’re constantly raising the TV volume; 2) you have trouble hearing on the phone; 3) you have difficulty understanding women and children; 4) people complain you’re speaking too loudly; 5) you can’t follow conversations in a car.

Statistics show that one out of four people over 60 years of age have some difficulty hearing. This number increases substantially each decade: 50 percent of people over age 70, 75 percent over age 80 and 100 percent by age 90. The sooner you get tested and address the problem, the easier it will be to adjust to hearing aids and improve your hearing.

Dr. Blake Ambridge, a Diamond Certified chiropractor with Santa Rosa Chiropractic Neurology Center, encourages people to use their beds only for their intended purpose, and to read and watch TV in a good armchair. One of the easiest ways to improve your night’s rest and help your spine from inflaming is to avoid reading or watching TV in bed.

To get the best rest, sleep on your side or back, never on your stomach. Use one not-too-fluffy pillow to keep your neck neutral and another pillow between or under your legs, depending on your sleep posture. The fetal position can be precarious with some conditions. It’s a bad idea to place your arm under your pillow and head, and avoid curling your forearms and wrists into tight balls. Dr. Ambridge says not to worry if you have some bad habits—motivated people can change them and get a much better night’s sleep.

Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves? Are you having trouble hearing a dinner partner’s conversation in noisy restaurants? Maybe high-pitched noises hurt your ears? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, Gregory Free, Audioprostologist for the Center for Better Hearing Aids, a Diamond Certified company, says you could be among the growing number of people experiencing hearing loss.

A new study from Marke Trak VIII Research finds that from 2004 to the present the number of people with hearing loss increased by 2.5 million, bringing the total to 34.5 million. Sixty percent of people with hearing loss are below retirement age, and men are more likely to have hearing loss than women (61% versus 39%). Statistics show that people wait an average of seven years before purchasing a hearing aid after they discover their hearing loss. If you're one of the growing statistics, why wait?

Do your old eyeglasses get tossed in a drawer and forgotten after you get a new pair? As reported by Earth911.com, the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 44% of the population in developing nations need glasses but don’t have access to them. Without the necessary lenses, correctable conditions such as far-sightedness and astigmatism keep many children and adults from reading, learning, and working. Put your retired spectacles to good use by donating them. Lions Clubs International has been collecting and recycling used eyeglasses for nearly a hundred years. To get your glasses to the Lions, mail them to: Lions Clubs International, Attention: Receiving Department, 300 W. 22nd Street, Oak Brook, IL 60523. (Check packaging guidelines first.)

Or, find local outlets where glasses are collected for distribution by the non-profit group OneSight. The foundation estimates it needs to collect and recycle 1.2 million pairs of used eyewear annually to support 20 global clinics.

Eating fruits and vegetables when they’re in season makes sense. Not only do you get the best prices, variety, quality, and flavor, according to Craig Kozy, owner of DeMartini Orchard, a Diamond Certified company, you also support local producers when you shop this way. This reduces transportation costs and the environmental impact.

If you’re eating seasonally, right now, that means you’re buying fresh asparagus. Mr. Kozy says that asparagus is a root crop from the lily family. This time of year, the best product is coming from Stockton and Salinas, his personal favorite for flavor. (White asparagus, by the way, is not grown locally. It’s from Peru.) The thinner asparagus stalks have a stronger flavor and can be stringy because they come from older rootstock. Thicker asparagus is sweeter and not stringy. Look for tight, closed buds on the tips to make sure you’re getting a fresh bunch of asparagus.

Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves? Are you having trouble hearing a dinner partner’s conversation in noisy restaurants? Maybe high-pitched noises hurt your ears? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, Gregory Free, Audioprostologist for the Center for Better Hearing Aids, a Diamond Certified company, says you could be among the growing number of people experiencing hearing loss.

A new study from Marke Trak VIII Research finds that from 2004 to the present the number of people with hearing loss increased by 2.5 million, bringing the total to 34.5 million. Sixty percent of people with hearing loss are below retirement age, and men are more likely to have hearing loss than women (61% versus 39%). Statistics show that people wait an average of seven years before purchasing a hearing aid after they discover their hearing loss. If you're one of the growing statistic, why wait?

The key to permanent weight loss is blood sugar stabilization. That's what Maureen Sullivan, owner of Diamond Certified's Lite for Life Inc., has learned after years of experience in the nutrition and diet counseling field. If you want to stabilize your blood sugar, start with eating only fruit, vegetables and protein for 2 to 5 days. Next, stop eating sugar and cut out alcohol. She suggests eating 5 to 6 small meals a day. With this kind of plan, Ms. Sullivan says that you will not be hungry or tired. You are unlikely to have cravings or have any of the negative symptoms that make you want to quit the diet. And, you could lose up to 2 pounds week.

The next time your company has an open enrollment period, you might want to consider switching your health plan from an HMO to a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO). That's the word from David W. Hodges, Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Certified's Hodges and Russell Insurance Services. He says while many people like many aspects of HMOs such as no paperwork and low fees, doctors are fed up with many of the plans.

In fact, many top specialists no longer participate in HMOs, so if you have a special medical problem and want to see the best expert in that field, you will likely find yourself paying for that visit out of your own pocket. The bottom line, according to Mr. Hodges, is that if you want to seek excellence in medical care, most of the time you're better off choosing a PPO over an HMO.

Have you ever checked out your doctor's credentials? Sometimes those framed diplomas and plaques on office walls don't tell you everything you need to know. The Medical Board of California has a website featuring a service called Doc Finder. Spokeswoman Candace Cohen says once you type in the physician's name, you will see where he or she graduated from medical school, whether the license is up-to-date and if a doctor has been formally accused of wrongdoing by California's Medical Board. The Board discloses all reported cases of discipline by a hospital or another state's board, and felony convictions.

Malpractice judgments and arbitration awards since 1993 are also part of a physician's profile. This year the state will start reporting on doctors who have 3 malpractice settlements exceeding $30,000 within a 10-year period for low-risk specialties and 4 or more for high-risk specialties. The website is www.medbd.ca.gov or call 916-263-2382.

Most of us start experiencing hearing loss after the age of forty. If you're like most people, you've been putting off having your hearing tested. However, procrastinating about a hearing problem is one of the worst things you can do, according to audiologist Mark Sanford, owner of CSG Better Hearing Center, a Diamond Certified company.

The longer your problem goes untreated, the worse it gets and the more difficult it is to treat. Mr. Sanford cites a study where people whose hearing loss was equal in both ears were fitted with a hearing aid in just one ear. The other ear was left untreated. Over a ten-year period, the loss in the ear with the hearing aid changed very little. In the unaided ear, however, speech understanding decreased 20 to 60%, which made adjusting to a hearing aid on that side much more difficult.

When a friend kept complaining about back pain, I encouraged him to go to his doctor. He had pain down his leg after sitting for three to four hours. After an exam and x-rays, nothing serious was identified, but his pain did not go away. Then one morning, his wife noticed his wallet bulging from the back of his pants. Once he stopped sitting on his wallet at work, he was pain free.

According to a Doctor at a Diamond Certified company, sitting on a big wallet raises one side of the pelvis. This can lead to an abnormal curve in the spine. The stress on muscles, ligaments and nerves may cause stiffness and pain. To avoid the problem, don't keep anything bulky in your back pocket, especially if you're sitting all day at work.

If your shampoo is drying out your hair, stripping out the color, or irritating your scalp, it’s time to talk to the professionals. Diamond Certified beauty experts say you may get better results with a professional quality shampoo made with better ingredients. While you may at first balk at paying $10 or more for a bottle of shampoo, you have to look at the cost per use. You need a lot less shampoo when you’re washing your hair with a higher quality product. When shopping for a new shampoo, you’ll find the ingredient labeling listing the chemicals isn’t all that helpful. Instead, talk to the experts. Mr. Walker’s staff recommends avoiding all-in-one shampoos, saying they’re not good for your hair, and if you have color-treated hair, look for a shampoo made specifically for that kind of hair.

The no and low-carbohydrate diets are a hot topic at many dinner parties these days. Most of us have tried or know someone on one of these diets, and the results are mixed. Nutritionist Maureen Sullivan, CEO of Lite for Life, a Diamond Certified company, doesn’t buy into the fad. Ms. Sullivan says the body needs good carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, beans, rice, potatoes, and cereals. On a low carb diet, you lose water and glycogen from your muscles, but not fat. Without good carbs, you lose energy so you don’t feel like exercising and even your mental performance is affected. To lose weight in a healthy way, give up the bad carbohydrates such as pastries, French fries and ice cream, and consume 2 to 3 servings of complex carbohydrates and 2 servings of fruit. The sky is the limit when it comes to non-starchy vegetables! Eat as many as you want.

We all know how important brushing and flossing is in preventing cavities and maintaining healthy gums. The big news is that you can further reduce your chances of getting cavities by chewing gum! According to Dr. Leslie William Jow, a Diamond Certified dentist, Xylitol, an artificial sweetener in some gums and breath mints, has been proven to have an anti-bacterial effect in the mouth. Dr. Jow says it's bacteria which produces an acid that breaks down tooth structure and causes cavities.

Another benefit of chewing gum is that it increases salivary flow. It's the minerals in your saliva that repair the damage caused by acid. Saliva re-mineralizes your teeth and helps to reduce the effect of the bacteria. In addition to finding a chewing gum with Xylitol high up on the ingredient list, you can also fight tooth decay by using anti-bacterial rinses, toothpaste and mouthwashes with fluoride. And, of course reducing sugars in your diet is beneficial.

Are you between 50 and 65 years old and having trouble seeing things up close and far away? This happens because the intraocular lens in your eyes hardens as you age. A new type of lens implant may be a solution for you, especially if you don't want to fuss with eyeglasses. According to a Doctor of a Diamond Certified Eye Institute, the Food and Drug Administration has recently approved a new implant procedure called Crystalens.

During the 15-minute surgery, your old hardened lens is removed. A special lens with hinges allowing it to flex is implanted into the back of the eye cavity. He does one implant at a time, waiting 2 weeks in between surgeries. Once both eyes are done, you must do reading exercises to get the most benefit from your implants. The improved vision from the surgery is permanent

Why spend your money on bogus products that promise to restore hair when there are drugs that work? A male friend with a pre-disposition to hair loss was thrilled when I passed along a brochure on Propecia I saw at my dermatologist's office. Now his barber keeps saying his hair is thicker than ever. According to Dr. Peter J. Panagotacos, author of Hair Loss Answers By the Hair Doc, a Diamond Certified professional, there are effective prescription medications for treating hair loss.

If you are trying different unproven remedies ordered over the Internet or from the back of magazines, stop wasting your money. Instead, spend it on an appointment with your dermatologist to learn more about drugs that work. And of course, if you have enough hair loss requiring replacement into bald areas, follicular-unit micrografting now gives undetectable results after hair transplantation.

You no longer have to go to the beach to get a suntan. You can use a tanning booth or have color sprayed on through a new misting process. Another alternative is an organic bronzing treatment.

The process begins with an exfoliation treatment where dead skin cells are scrubbed off. Next, an all-organic bronzing cream is massaged into the skin, creating a streakless, non-greasy, natural bronze. Your suntan will last about a week, but it might need touch-ups, especially if you’re in the water a lot. Three to five treatments before vacation will make your skin tan more quickly when you are in the sun.  You still need to slather on the sunscreen at the beach to fend off the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

Because women are social and at the same time competitive, they find exercising in groups motivates them. "If she can do it, I can do it," is what Katrina Lopez, Club Manager for Lady of America, a Diamond Certified company, hears from women in her club. In fitness classes, women help and support each other and this improves results.

What else motivates women to stick with an exercise program? Ms. Lopez says they like good music, good choreography, variety and lots of cardio. They do not naturally want to spend time on weight training because it’s a more solitary activity. For this reason, it’s a good idea for a women’s exercise class to incorporate bands, free weights and machines in group training. Circuit classes work well for women too. When women start to see the benefits of exercising regularly, they stay away from fad diets, which are usually a recipe for disaster.

Retirement is a time to downsize. Moving into a retirement community means having to decide what to take or leave behind. Seniors probably won't be able to take all their possessions with them. Linda Johnson, Administrator for the Diamond Terrace Retirement Community, a Diamond Certified facility, suggests using a digital camera to make the move easier.

Material objects hold memories--of other times, or people, places and events in our lives. Using a camera to capture those memories will ease the sense of loss the move is certain to trigger. Ms. Johnson suggests photographing every room in the house and outside too. Even a banged up recliner headed for the trash heap, says Ms. Johnson, might bring back the memory of a pet or shopping for furniture with a now departed loved one. Photographs help clear away the clutter so you'll have room for a new life to begin.

Does your current hearing aid sound like your head is in a bucket? Does the sound of your own voice make you feel like you are shouting when you talk? Is it hard to carry on a conversation when you are chewing? These are common complaints from people with traditional hearing aids according to Diamond Certified hearing specialists. Most of these problems can be eliminated by digital hearing aids with "OPEN EAR" technology.

This new technology allows the audiologist to use your natural hearing in combination with an "OPEN" ear canal fitting that channels the sound you need to hear, not what you do not want to hear. Patients can be very satisfied with these high quality devices as it is easier to adjust to new hearing aids that provide natural hearing.

What does it take to keep your teeth healthy and looking great?  Most importantly, go to your dentist for regular, comprehensive exams. A really good exam should evaluate the support, alignment, and physical integrity of your teeth.

Healthy gums and bones provide the foundational support and the esthetic framing for your teeth and smile.  Measuring the gum “pockets” and comparing them to x-ray findings is one way to detect gum disease that could lead to tooth loss.  The alignment of teeth and how they bite together can affect the health of your teeth, jaw joints and muscles.  Accelerated or uneven wearing, chipping, cracking, and loosening of teeth be indicators of alignment problems.  Even sore jaws or joints, teeth clenching or grinding, clicking joints, and sore teeth can be related.  Finally, repairs are best when they re-strengthen teeth, fit well, are durable, and leave you with a great looking smile.

If you've had the same doctor for a long time and you're generally satisfied with the care you've received, chances are you have never checked on his or her license with the State Medical Board. Most people haven't, according to Public Information Officer Candice Cohen. This Board licenses all doctors practicing in California, and the website, www.mbc.ca.gov is considered one of the best in the country in terms of information provided to consumers.

What can you find out about any doctor? Most importantly, you can verify that the State has not filed any formal charges against the physician. The Board will post felony convictions along with disciplinary actions. When I used the website recently, I was disappointed that specialties were not listed on an individual doctor's record, but that is coming soon. The consumer information section is also useful with articles on Internet prescriptions, medical marijuana laws, and rights concerning medical records.

Whitening your teeth is one of the most affordable, safe and conservative ways to improve your appearance, and it's good for your gums too. You can go to your dentist's office or a clinic specializing in bleaching teeth, or you can buy a do-it-yourself kit at the drug store or on the Internet. The active ingredients in all bleaching products used for whitening are basically the same peroxide based materials, according to Dr. William R. Hummer, D.D.S., a Diamond Certified professional.

The difference is in the concentration, time in contact and application process. You can use a higher concentration of the bleaching agent over a shorter period of time or use a lower dose over a longer period of time. Either way you will still see an improvement with patience and diligence. If your teeth are sensitive do it for a shorter time or more days between treatments.

Anytime you have foot pain which lasts more than a day and the pain worsens, you probably need professional help. Dr. Michael Cornelison with Cupertino Podiatry Inc., a Diamond Certified professional, says many problems in the ankles, back and knees begin with how your foot hits the ground and work their way up.

A comprehensive podiatric exam includes an evaluation of leg length, postural issues, foot placement when walking, the structure of the foot, medical and family history. Sometimes the solution is a simple stretching and exercise program. Often custom or pre-fabricated orthotics are recommended to stabilize the heel. Supportive and appropriate shoes help your feet stay healthy. The podiatrist's goal is to keep you walking properly because this form of exercise is a key to good health in the long run. By the way, two Bay Area cities are ranked as top walking cities in an American Podiatric Medical Association survey - San Francisco and San Jose.

Do you wake up with burning and red eyes, or find your eyes tearing up constantly? Eye doctors hearthese complaints frequently and suggest keepinglotions and creams which you apply to your face, away from your eyes.

Irritating ingredients in some skin care products candamage the protective tear layer covering the eyeball. To avoid problems, use only water-based eye make-up removers and apply lotions and creams only up to your cheekbone and above the brow, so as to not get too close to the eye.  Creams can seep into your eyes and destroy your natural tear chemistry. This can cause another problem known as dry eye. Also, if you use eye drops that claim to whiten your eyes, never use them on an ongoing basis.  Repeated applications can create a rebound effect and your redness problem will get worse.

Whether you’re lifting an object from an unbalanced position, twisting, turning, playing a specific sport, or even just walking down the street, it’s important to use the right muscle groups and be in proper alignment. Diamond Certified fitness experts recommend a fitness plan that incorporates multiple-joint movements in multiple directions, improving your ability to be fit for real life, not just fit for an exercise machine.

You can begin by checking out the wear patterns in your shoes to identify posture problems. In a mirror, notice your alignment if your shoulders are rotated forward, in front of the ears. In order to engage in your normal activities without pain, practice the following skills needed for functional movement: squats, lunges, core stabilization and strength, balancing on one leg, being able to touch the base of your neck behind your head, and stretching muscles specifically, not generally.

If you’re the typical woman, your purse is chock full of stuff – water bottles, make-up, a bulging wallet, even a change of shoes. Diamond Certified chiropractors say you should dump out about 50% of what’s in your bag to avoid injuring your neck, shoulders, and back.

What happens when you wear a heavy bag on one shoulder is that the other side has to act as a counter-balance. This causes torque on your upper body and can even compress the nerves under your collarbone. Carrying a giant handbag in your hand can stress your elbow and wrist.  Be sure to “lighten up” so when the purse is fully loaded, it weighs no more than a couple of pounds. It’s best to carry your lighter load on your forearm, or better yet, invest in a small “designer” backpack, which evenly distributes the weight across the body.

If you want to take your fitness to another level, working with a personal trainer can make a huge difference. Bradley Buchholz, Personal Training Director for The Big C Athletic Club, a Diamond Certified company, suggests working with a certified and experienced personal trainer to help you reach all of your health and fitness goals.

Look for a trainer who establishes good rapport and can motivate you. These two elements are critical to a successful and long-term relationship with your trainer. Expect the personal trainer to ask you what your short and long-term goals are, what your past exercise regimen entailed, and discuss some aspects of nutrition. Be sure to inform your trainer about your previous injuries and medical history. Once you start the workout, the trainer should demonstrate proper technique and exercises that will help you reach your goals. 

Doesn't it seem like everything is online today? And doesn't that make you feel just a little bit...uneasy? Your fears may not be entirely irrational when it comes to health records. Personal Health Records, also known as PHRs, are part of an online system dedicated to collecting, tracking, and sharing your health information. The purpose? To give you, the patient, the ability to access and modify the your record for new medications, hospitalizations, vaccinations, etc, so they can be shared with whomever you please. PHRs are not Electronic Health Records (EHRs), which are maintained exclusively by health care providers.

The masterminds behind the PHR may not be the people you would expect — like, for instance, the hospitals. They can range from big names to no names, and they charge fees. Some of the third party sponsors are Microsoft's Health Vault, Google Health, or www.accessmyrecords.com.

The key thing you need to know about PHRs is that not all are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The HIPAA only protects your privacy when dealing with directly health providers, health plans, and health clearinghouses. If you're using a system sponsored by a third party, be careful! You may not be protected.

Here are some other issues related to PHRs. If the website is subpoenaed for legal issues, your records could be subpoenaed as well. And don't forget about site security — there's no guarantee you won't be hacked. Finally, remember that PHRs are Electronic Health Records (EHRs), which are maintained exclusively by health care providers. Don't mix these terms up.

The secret to weight control is simply eating the right foods, in the right amount, at the right time. Maureen Sullivan, Founder & Chief Nutritionist of Lite for Life, Inc. in Burlingame, a Diamond Certified company, has found no other "quick fix" in her 30 years of weight loss counseling. She educates her clients on the single most important aspect of nutrition - stabilizing blood sugar.

The biggest mistakes people make are skipping breakfast, exercising without eating before and after, and starting the day with caffeine and sugar (a mocha and a muffin). These habits create spikes and drops in blood sugar throughout the day. If blood sugar is too low before dinnertime, sweet treats are likely to be craved afterwards. The solution? Eat 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks to balance blood sugar. People who follow this plan usually drop the unwanted pounds and are amazed at how much better they feel.

I do not enjoy riding my old Gitane bicycle any more with its low handlebars, hard seat and skinny tires. Ric Paul, owner of Wheel Away Cycle Center, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, tells me that with a few changes, I can reduce the strain on my neck and back and have a much better riding experience.

First off, you need to elevate the handlebars. Just getting a longer stem or buying new upright handlebars can increase the rise for the upper body 6 to 8 inches. This might slow you down a bit, but you have better visibility and a much more comfortable ride. A broader and softer seat adds comfort, and you might consider padded cycling shorts as well. If you're ready to trade in your old Gitane or Varsity Schwinn for a brand new comfortable cruiser, Mr. Paul recommends the Townie from Electra or the Expedition by Specialized. Prices range from $350-$400.