November 28, 2016

Kaiser Permanente's self-help handbook

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian


In the 1970s, people sought to take back control of their communities and their bodies from a medical establishment they considered racist, sexist, and generally not helpful to a multitude of Americans.

A seminal tract in this emerging “self-help” movement, Women and Their Bodies, was published in 1970, followed by a revised version called Our Bodies, Our Selves in 1971. By 1973, it was so popular that Simon & Schuster published the first commercial, expanded edition. It has since been translated into 30 languages, with millions of copies in print.

It was in that context that Healthwise, an Idaho nonprofit, was founded in 1975 by Don Kemper, MPH (who retired this year), with a simple mission: “Help people make better health decisions.” The next year it published the first Healthwise Handbook.

Kaiser Permanente worked with Healthwise to publish its own version of the Healthwise Handbook: A Self-Care Guide For You And Your Family, in 1994. It was a cornerstone of Kaiser Permanente’s Self-Care Program, designed to give people the skills and information necessary to safely identify and treat minor health problems at home.


The format for all maladies, from asthma to tick bites to depression, includes a description of what to look for, how to prevent it, home treatment options, and when to call Kaiser Permanente.

In 2000, the Kaiser Permanente Healthwise Handbook was honored with a silver award from the National Health Information Awards program for the publication's consumer health information. The Spanish version of the handbook, La Salud En Casa: Guia Practica de Healthwise y Kaiser Permanente, received a bronze award. The handbooks were chosen for having the best consumer health information in the Health Promotion/Disease and Injury Prevention Information class.

The Healthwise Knowledgebase self-help medical encyclopedia was an early health resource featured on Kaiser Permanente Online, and later print editions offered a broad range of links to key self-care resources, such as the Kaiser Permanente Healthphone, KP Online, and other recommended health websites. In Northern California, primary care physicians and staff were issued two copies along with tips on how to encourage members to use the Handbook. And in 2001, in partnership with the California State Library, Kaiser Permanente donated a collection of Healthwise Handbooks to every public library in the state.

Special thanks to Kaiser Permanente physician Dr. Stephen Tarzynski for donating this title to the Kaiser Permanente archives, and to librarian Thomas Shreves for facilitating that transfer.