Before I get into this, I want to say that I'm the first to say, from a reality-based perspective, that Americans are, in a sense, "over-medicalized". I'm no shill for doctors, and in my ideal world, we would all spend less time at the damn doctor. But the reason that we are in doctor's offices more than we should be is a complex one—if fact, it's multiple reasons. And most of them are things the medical establishment is trying to fix. A lot of the reason doctors order too many tests and prescribe too many drugs is that if they didn't do so, their patients would flip the fuck out on them—because Americans have never once really gotten behind the idea that less can sometimes be more—and since it's in a doctor's best financial interests often to do more, they aren't going to fight you as hard as they probably should. Another reason that is completely unrelated that we spend more on doctors than we ideally should is that we, as a nation, don't invest nearly enough in prevention. We let young people go uninsured, making it years and even decades that people go without just basic check-ups, so that when they do finally start seeing a doctor, illnesses that could have been caught early have festered. We eat too much and exercise too little, and then we end up spending way more on diabetes management and cholesterol drugs than we should. We underfund contraception spending and shame women for being slutty if they use contraception, resulting in high unintended pregnancy rates that lead to even more preventable health problems.
So yes, we are over-medicalized in a sense, but it's a complex problem and Americans are simple-minded idiots. Thus, people have this vague sense that we are all at the doctor too much, and they react not by learning the ins and outs of this complex problem, but instead by embracing a knee-jerk assumption that medical science is BAD and "natural"—whatever the fuck that means—is GOOD, and that doctors are out to get you and that everything produced by Big Pharma is BAD and "chemical" and therefore toxic. And they convince themselves the problem isn't a combination of hard-to-extract social forces plus bad managment of our collective medical dollar, but instead that medical science is some Frankenstein-y evil scientist shit and that the cure for our problems lies in shopping at Whole Foods. This attitude gives birth to anti-vaccination idiots and homeopathic nonsense and GOOD magazine tricking themselves into believing that something is bad if you call it "salycic acid", but A-OK if you call it "extract of willow". (Seriously, it's time to revive the dihydrogen monoxide hoax.) And no one is more guilty than Huffington Post of promoting knee-jerk hostility to medical science in lieu of promoting actual knowledge.
Case in point: they've run an article by a quack named Dr. Robert Kornfeld, who is…..wait for it….a "holistic" podiatrist. Who has this art on his office's homepage:
Run away while your feet are still healthy!
In all seriousness, the Huffington Post should issue a formal apology for running this article titled "6 Medical Myths Even Your Doctor May Still Believe", since it's a sea of strawmen, shilling for just-as-corporate "alternative" medicine, and straight dangerous misinformation. Let's take it one at a time.
Myth #1- Technology has improved healthcare
But Dr. Kornfeld poops your stupid, irrefutable numbers.
Statistically, since the age of technology, there has been an onslaught of increasing pathology. The amount of illness and morbidity in our society is dramatically rising. There are now more cases of cancer, heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune illnesses, endocrine disorders, developmental disorders, allergies, respiratory problems, infectious diseases, neurological problems, musculo-skeletal pathology, gastro-intestinal disorders, psychological illness, etc., than ever before.
Plus, there's so many more old people around, and they need to go to the doctor so much. Clearly, letting people get older hasn't done shit for our national health.
In all honesty, what's particularly perverse about this is one reason U.S. life expectancy has gone up so much in the past century or so is that we've developed so many technologies that keep small children alive that would have otherwise died, with vaccines being a big one, as well as some of the simple technologies that keep troubled infants alive that would have died before we had things like, oh, respirators.
But the biggest problem with his argument is that it's a red herring. Yes, it's true that certain illnesses are on the rise in our culture (but other fatal illnesses, such as polio, have been wiped out), but that literally has nothing to do with technology. His argument is like saying, "Cars were promised to get us places faster, but I still can't run better than an 8 minute mile." The two things are unrelated! Unless you think there's a sea of doctors out there telling patients to stuff their maw with tons of crap while never getting their heart rate above resting because, fuck it, they can get Lipitor, then this argument makes no sense at all.
Myth #2 – Inflammation is bad
One thing about quacks is that all have one completely bizarro obsession, and this guy's argument that you should let swollen things be swollen and painful is his. I've argued before that I see connections between thinking of anti-choicers and the "natural" fetishists, even though they often fall on opposite sides of the political divide (though not only—look up the concept of a "crunchy conservative"), and this belief that suffering is inherently good for you—well, not you, but other people you would foist it on—is one of those links. I feel bad for this guy's patients, because I'm guessing if you have foot problems, the occasional use of an anti-inflammatory, even just aspirin, is probably just what you need.
Myth #3 – Genetically coded diseases are unavoidable…
Let's take a closer look at this issue. If having a gene for any illness condemns you to having that disease, then why are you not born with the disease you are coded to have? Why isn't every person who carries a gene for disease suffering at all times from that disease? The answer is that all genes do not express themselves at all times and many never do. There must be a reason why the body would call upon a gene to express itself. Otherwise, none of us would be able to survive the onslaught of genetic expression. So what is it that causes a gene to express itself? If you consider for a moment that diseases are just a complex of symptoms being incorporated by the body in an attempt to protect itself from tissue destruction and/or imminent death, you may begin to get a clearer understanding of what I am trying to say. Once we begin to pay attention to the reasons that a gene might express itself, we may be able to prevent that gene from releasing its code for illness.
He then goes into a lot of blather about "free radicals" and basically implies that eating right is all you need to do to prevent genetic illnesses from developing. This section may have bothered me the most, because it takes a grain of truth—that genes interact with the environment and can express themselves in different ways—and runs off into la-la land with it. Unfortunately, it's a la-la land where he's discouraging people from working with their doctor to learn about genetic diseases in their families and what can be done to prevent or minimize them in the real world. It's a complete and utter lie that doctors think that having a gene for something condemns you to the worst possible version of that disease, and that they won't do anything to help you prevent that from happening. For instance, I have a friend whose family has a genetic tendency towards high cholesterol, and her doctor—gasp!—put her on a diet and exercise program in order to lower her cholesterol and avoid having to control it with drugs that can sometimes be not so good for your body. He certainly didn't drag her into his office and say, "Well, let's talk about how you're inevitably going to have a heart attack before you're 35." This is a despicable misreading of how doctors use genetic information to deal with patients. Plus, Kornfeld basically claims that any genetic illness that you develop is your fault because you didn't mind your free radicals, which is an outrageous guilt-tripping of people who do get sick no matter what they do. He's basically pandering to the weird notion that we will never die and that we're in complete control at all times of our bodies, and that's simply not true. You can do things to improve your health, sure, but you know, the clock is ticking for all of us.
Myth #4 – Medications improve health
We are, in this country, the most heavily medicated society on the planet. People are taking medications to control the symptoms of countless diseases. These medications are either prescribed by their physicians or purchased over the counter by the patient. I have seen, in my practice, thousands of elderly patients taking upward of 10 prescription medications as well as a few over-the-counter ones. If you ask the average senior how they are feeling, most will say that they feel awful in spite of their medications. How could this be? If the medications are supposedly "keeping them healthy," how come they feel so bad? There are a number of reasons for this.
Seriously, I'm beginning to wonder if this sort of thing is opening HuffPo up for a lawsuit. Look, this is about the stupidest thing I've ever read. For instance, say someone has a minor stomach upset from the birth control pill on occasion. Are they feeling less than perfect? Sure. Are they feeling better than they would be if facing an unintended pregnancy? Absolutely. (Talk about stomach distress.) He's basically trying to imply that doctors don't believe in side effects, when the contrary is true. In fact, the point of a doctor is that they're supposed to balance your competing needs to determine what treatments to give you. So yes, some drugs make you feel not so great, but the point is that if you didn't take them, you'd feel even worse. Or you wouldn't be feeling at all, due to the "dead" thing. Take Lipitor, which is a drug I return to because it's one of those that I think provokes this kind of anxiety. The medical establishment is trying to prevent people from going on Lipitor. That's why they test your blood even if you're healthy, weigh you, and otherwise promote diet and exercise. They know Lipitor has bad side effects, but the problem is that high cholesterol has worse side effects.
Myth #5 – Childhood immunizations protect us from serious disease
I don't even know what to say. He minimizes childhood illnesses from the past, suggesting that it's no big deal to get, say, whooping cough or diptheria (which currently kills about 10% of people who get it), but then makes the usual unfounded claims that vaccines are bad for kids. I don't even want to go over this, except to refer you to this actual science-based myth-debunking about vaccines. The one thing I'll add is to ask you to look at that life expectancy chart and remember that one reason life expectancy went up so dramatically is that we were able, through medical technology, to dramatically reduce the number of infant and small children deaths, and that one of the most important technologies was vaccines. If you still don't believe this, go visit a 19th century graveyard and consider how many graves are there for children.
Myth # 6 – The double blind – placebo controlled study guarantees safety and efficacy in drug therapy
It's no surprise that quacks all over dislike double blind studies, because double blind studies tend to show that "alternative" therapies don't work at all. Which isn't to say that there aren't legitimate criticisms of the FDA standards for testing efficacy and safety. But most of those criticisms aren't coming from people who think you should stop going to real doctors and give your money to quacks instead. For a more measured, pro-science approach to this question, I recommend watching Ben Goldacre's TED Talk.
I'll repeat; on a certain level, I get it. Our health care system is in crisis. Some people are over-medicated, and some people can't get care at all. Doctors are often over-worked and not up on the latest science. We spend too much treating illnesses that could have been prevented. A lot of drugs given to people aren't the best treatment possible, and Big Pharma actually takes pains to conceal that fact because it hurts their bottom line. All these things are true. But the solution isn't to embrace some black-and-white anti-medical science point of view, and lash out at medical science for having the nerve to exist. Medical science isn't evil, it's just in crisis. It doesn't need to be abandoned so much as improved. And if you stop wasting so much time engaging with quacks and Big Alternative Medicine (much of which is owned by Big Pharma) and pay attention to the real debates going on about how to improve medicine, you'll find it's all very fascinating and perhaps not as hard to understand as you feared.