In the past few weeks, I’ve been hit with a number of medical issues. None were life-threatening but they were enough to really catch my attention. In addition, a friend did have a life-threatening condition—her kidneys failed—for which she’s now in treatment (dialysis). In my calmer moments, that got me thinking about how ordinary citizens interact with medicine beyond their own doctor’s office, including how the press covers medical research news.
Eggs are bad for you, right? No, wait, they’re good!
Need to lose weight? Which diet should you use: Atkins, paleo, Mediterranean, plant-based? They’re all based in science, aren’t they?
If you consume too much of such-and-such chemical, your chance of getting Cancer X will go up by 250%. However, if you get less, your chance of a heart attack or stroke will go down by 50%.
Got a particular disease? Take Drug X. No, Drug Y! In tests it was proven to have fewer side-effects (although the fine print includes a higher risk of death). But wait, you can take Drug Z as a pill rather than an injection. (By the way, each pill costs $4,000 if you don’t have insurance, but if you’re poor enough, BigPharmaCo can “help.”)
It’s no wonder the ordinary citizen’s head starts to spin like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.
Complexity Squared—or Cubed
The human body, and indeed the bodies of every multi-celled organism, is incredibly and wonderfully complex. Not just a single system, it is a system of systems. Each part—organ, muscle, nerve, connective tissue, bone—does its particular tasks, usually does them well, and does them in physical and chemical connection with many others. What your stomach does affects your liver (and vice versa) and your brain (and vice versa) and your muscles (and vice versa) through the agency of your blood and lymph, which in turn also affect your stomach.
That interconnectivity is a layer of complexity on top of the complexity of how each part itself works. No organ is made of just one kind of cell, and within each organ, the cells talk to each other via chemical signals, changing their behavior and the chemical signals they in turn put out.
And of course, what’s going on inside each cell is its own level of complexity.
According to various web sites, including Smithsonian.com, the human body contains roughly 37.2 trillion cells—trillion with a T—give or take several hundred billion. Then there are another 40 trillion or so bacteria, viral particles, fungi, etc., mostly bacteria. (The latest accepted ratio is 1.3 bacterial cells for each human cell.) Most live in or on our outer skin or what I’ll call our inner skin: our digestive tract. Indeed, without some of these bacteria, we’d starve. They’re the ones that can break down certain parts of the food we eat and produce—as waste products, no less—the chemicals we need to survive. This symbiotic process operates in all animals that have a digestive tract; we are not unique.
So it shouldn’t be any surprise, really, that to those of us who know little or nothing about how our bodies work, our medical scientists seem to know less than they should. We ordinary citizens don’t really understand just how complex our bodies are.
That includes the members of the news media, who also know less than they should about statistics and thus get sucked into thinking a double- or triple-digit change in someone’s susceptibility to some disease or side effect is significant. Usually such changes are simply a sign that the occurrence rate of that disease or side effect was small to begin with: when susceptibility to Disease X rises from one per 100,000 people to two per 100,000, that’s a 100% increase… in what was a very small number. We “get” the one and two; the 100,000, not so much.
As I’ve written before, what we need is for doctors and research scientists to talk more, in language ordinary citizens can understand, about how our bodies work, how complex and interconnected each piece and part is, and how there is so much left to learn, despite how much these scientists already know about those pieces and parts.
Today’s imperfect “solution” to some medical condition is imperfect because our knowledge about that condition—and the human body—is incomplete. No one should be surprised by that, nor should they be angry. Granted, it can be hard not to be angry, especially when that incomplete, imperfect knowledge results in harm, not help, or not “enough” help for ourselves or someone we care about.
At least we no longer think that draining someone’s blood will cure them of something!
At the same time, we have responsibilities too. We need to make the time to learn about any medical conditions we face from reputable sources. We also need to make sure our attitudes are constructive. The friend I mentioned at the beginning generally rejects Western medicine, relying instead on homeopathics, and has refused to acknowledge that she’s probably diabetic. As a result, she’s nearly died twice, and ended up in hospitals in the care of… wait for it… the very Western medicine she otherwise rejects.
Getting older is mandatory; getting old is not.
Many of us Baby Boomers are still trying to live by Roger Daltry’s line from The Who’s “My Generation”: “hope I die before I get old.” That’s fine, if by getting old we mean mentally and emotionally, but denying the reality of physical aging and its consequences is counterproductive.
The belief that doctors and medical science should know everything about everything is unhelpful too. We can and should be grateful for the advances science is making in so many areas, and hopeful for more. But we also need to acknowledge that there are limits to what we know or can do. It stinks when those limits hurt us, but that’s just the way things are.
What do you think?
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