These days just about everything is a medical condition. If you need to lose weight, you see a doctor. If you plan to have a child, you see a doctor. If you can't sit still in math, you see a doctor. This sociological process of medicalization certainly has its benefits (especially if you happen to make a living in the medical industry), but for most of us, this process just leaves us with debt, an artificial reliance on medicine, and a greater risk of a medical mistake. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon, CNN medical correspondent, and author of a recent New York Times piece titled, More Treatment, More Mistakes, argues that medical mistakes lead to 200,000 US deaths every year. At that rate, they are one of the leading cause of deaths in the US today!
In his article Gupta recounts several personal experiences with medical mistakes. In one instance he recalls an event in which a neurosurgeon operated on the wrong side of a patient's brain because the CT scan had been hung up backward. In another case Gupta recounts a case in which a doctor prescribed an antibiotic to a child. After prescription the patient developed a rare dangerous response to the antibiotic that landed her in intensive care for two weeks. The original ailment turned out to have been nothing more than a mild viral infection.
Dr. Gupta attributes a portion of these medical mistakes to what he calls defensive medicine. He suggests that the risk of law suit for doctors and hospitals is so great that they perform medical procedures and prescribe medications as precautionary measures, not for the benefit of the patient, but for the benefit of the medical industry. He further reported on a study of orthopedic surgeons in which the surgeons reported anonymously that 24% of the tests they ordered for their patients were medically unnecessary.
All medical procedures and medications have inherent risk. The more frequently we submit ourselves to these risks, the more likely we are to see either a medical mistake or an unexpected side effect. Unquestionably, there are times when a medical procedures can save a person's life. Dr. Gupta and others who have maintained Gupta's position have always argued that medical science has its place. The argument is whether the remarkable amount of medicalization we see today is necessary, and whether it might just be killing us.
On two different occasions I have had friends of mine admit that they make decisions regarding medical care based on how it impacts them financially. In one case, a family practitioner friend noted that he prescribes medications, not because they are necessary, but because if he does not, the family will find another doctor who will. In another case, an optometrist friend noted that he changes the prescription for his patients at every visit regardless of whether it is necessary because it ultimately results in the patient scheduling more frequent appointments.
With all of the risk associated with medicalization, it seems to me that we need to "know our doctor" in the very same way I have argued you must "know your farmer". It further seems to me that if we really get to know our farmer and live defensive of ailment throughout our life then we won't have to worry so much about what our doctors might be doing.
My whole argument really lends itself to two related questions. First, what can we do in our life to prevent the need for medical intervention and second, when is it actually necessary to seek medical care. So, now that I've waded into what is likely to be a charged discussion, please help us all out. What do you do to live a healthy life? When is a medical doctor actually necessary?
Vincent M. Smith - PhD