I studied clinical psychology I recall one of my professors warning
our class of the dangers of 'medical-student syndrome'. The
condition is suffered by students who experience unsubstantiated
fears and symptoms of illnesses they are learning about. They become
what the average person might consider a hypochondriac. So, seemingly,
if you study illness you start to think you may have that illness.
This seems to be infectious in more ways than one. Recently, British
doctors warned of what they call telly belly. Immediately
after watching health items on television or a soap opera with a
character experiencing a particular illness, patients
with allegedly similar symptoms tend to appear at doctors
can be a good thing. Television helps shape how people feel and
can raise awareness about health problems.
at the same time, it tells us how susceptible we are to media manipulation.
There is a fine line between health education and educating us to
constantly think we are sick. But does this matter if it means the
potential for early diagnosis? To some degree it does. It is a waste
of money, stretches State services and pushes up premiums for health
insurance. Worse, it opens the door for various commercial interests
to continue to persuade us into availing of their services and products.
your average bookshop. The health section is generally extensive,
dozens of books promising to help you diagnose your problems and
alleviate them with the purchase of some product. But is it not
ironic that the average person who can afford to buy books these
days and who tries out the cures has never been healthier in world
history? Drug companies do the same. According to Marcia Angell,
author of The Truth About Drug Companies, about 75% of new medications
are me too drugs which are no better than drugs already
on the market to treat the identical condition. So three quarters
of medications on the market are not necessary, but they have to
sell. This explains why drug companies spend two-and-a-half times
more on marketing and administration than on research. To increase
the market is simple: tell people they are increasingly suffering
from a range of conditions they did not even know they had and turn
normal experience into illness. No doubt, certain people suffer
from clinical depression and may need medication but, increasingly,
unhappiness is being painted as a disease needing pills. Is illness
creating the need for certain drugs or are drugs helping shape illnesses?
I am not advocating a world without medication.
We all know the importance of antiretroviral drugs in treating people
living with HIV/Aids. There is also a critical place for genuine
health education through programmes such as Soul City in South Africa.
But what concerns me is that average people who are generally well
are being sucked into a commercialised medical universe. The flagship
of medicalisation is the media, which continually report on the
slightest health scares and tempt us into self-diagnosis through
relentless entertainment with medical themes such as ER and reality
hospital-based TV shows. Let us not turn everyone in society into
patients with health obsessions. The more we do this,
the more we lose perspective. While the middle class snap up the
latest health-related books and drug companies roll out their new
ad campaigns, people in genuine need of medication are dying. It
seems that Mark Twain was right when he said: Be careful about
reading health books. You may die of a misprint.
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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