When Maggie Kleinman's 6-year-old son Joshua develops a skin rash or a minor physical problem, she doesn't always rush to call the doctor.
Instead, the 39-year-old West Los Angeles screenwriter often heads to her home library to consult one of the medical reference books she began collecting about eight years ago.
The books aren't the type you would display on a coffee table. Her collection, intended primarily for use by physicians and other health-care professionals, is made up of hefty volumes with plain-Jane titles such as "Physicians' Desk Reference" and "Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body."
But Kleinman finds the information inside invaluable. Sometimes she's able to use it to take care of minor problems herself. Other times, her background reading facilitates communication with her physician.
Curiosity and a desire to be an active participant in her own health care inspired her to build the collection, she said recently.
"I really refer to the books a lot," she added. "My mother called the other day and asked me to look up a prescription her doctor had given her for the flu," Kleinman said. "And I recently looked up information for my agent about breast-feeding."
Other health-minded consumers have joined Kleinman in buying medical reference books for home use, and the trend will escalate, predicted Bob Woodbury, director of special sales for the C. V. Mosby Co., a St. Louis-based medical and nursing-book publisher.
"When the new 'Physicians' Desk Reference' is due," one assistant manager of a large consumer bookstore in Hollywood said, "we have a lot of people calling, asking 'Is it in yet?' "
A home medical library is not designed to replace the need for professional health care, of course.
"Use a home medical library as an educational supplement rather than as a substitute for professional medical care," advised Dr. Gray Ellrodt, director of the division of general internal medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.
Once a physician or other health-care professional has made a diagnosis, consumers can use the medical reference books to educate themselves further about their condition and medications, he pointed out.
Using medical reference books to self-diagnose is potentially dangerous, he emphasized. Suppose, Ellrodt suggested, you have chest pains. "That could be one of about 50 things. If you diagnose it (based on your reading) as, say, costochondritis (an inflammation of a rib and its cartilage) and it turns out it's a heart attack, you're in deep trouble."
Because the reference books are written for physicians and other health-care professionals, the "medicalese" can be confusing.
One way to understand it more easily, suggested Karen Hollister, an information specialist at Norris Medical Library at the USC Health Sciences campus, is to buy a medical terminology book available in technical and some consumer bookstores.
'Dissecting' the Words
"Medical terminology books organize medical words in a way that's helpful," she explained. Most give lists of medical roots, different prefixes and suffixes and what they mean, allowing readers to "dissect" the words more easily.
Some medical reference books are sold by consumer bookstore chains; others are available only at specialized bookstores (often listed in the Yellow Pages as medical or technical bookstores) or at medical-school or college bookstores.
Consumers just beginning to use medical reference books, Cedars' Ellrodt warns, should be careful not to catch a disease often epidemic among first-year medical students. Put in layman's terms, it's the "you-read-about-it, you-have-it" syndrome.
A home medical library should begin with four basic types of books, said health-care professionals and medical librarians polled by The Times. Here are their choices with approximate retail prices noted:
Three dictionaries are most often mentioned by experts. If you've always been curious about the meanings of words like cephalalgia (headache) and micrognathia (an abnormal smallness of the jaws) and want grist for cocktail-party chatter, one of these may be the book for you.
Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (F. A. Davis Co., Philadelphia, Pa.: $29.25.).
Stedman's Medical Dictionary (Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, Md.: $34.50). Stedman's Pocket Medical Dictionary was published earlier this year and retails for $16.95.
Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia, Pa.: $36.95 hardcover, $21.95 paperback).
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT