The diplomatic thing would be to say there is some agreement between the Witty Report and this one. There is certainly some overlap in suggested solutions.
We could perhaps even agree that the real problem is the failure of medicine rather than pharma malfeasance. But the fault-line runs deeper.
There are two or maybe three forces, depending on the way you look at it, that have created the whirlpool into which we are now being sucked. One set of forces lies in the push to consumption and the other lies in the nature of modern medicines.
A patch of ground
Lots of us used to have a small patch of ground where we grew vegetables or herbs – or maybe just flowers. Some of us still do. We produce our own food rather than buy it. Not so long ago most of us used to produce food or at least ate food produced by people we knew or were not far removed from.
Until very recently, after we bought food, we produced our own meals and usually did so for families or for a few people at the same time. Now when we buy food it’s often in the form of processed meals where all you need to do is hit a button on the microwave. There is no production. It’s all consumption. We might once have produced the fire that cooked our food, it’s now bought in in the form of a microwave.
Producing meals did more than provide food. It helped produce children and families and communities. Now the children will often come in from school to an empty house and press a button on the microwave. Who knows what’s in the meals. It might look like food but the food processing industry is increasingly getting away from anything that would have been recognized as food a few years ago. And eating meals this way is not producing a community.
Consuming convenience foods isn’t all bad. If you’re Beethoven absorbed in producing The Ode to Joy, being able to hit a button on the microwave might be a blessing – provided when you go to the supermarket to pick up something you’re not paralyzed trying to pick between exotic looking food packages that promise so much to the eyes but which you know will break their promises to your hope when you dig a fork into them.
Choice is one of the problems that consumption brings with it.
Annemarie Mol brings this out dramatically in The Logic of Care – one of the greatest books ever written about medicine.
I am pregnant and 36. A national committee of experts in the Netherlands where I live, has looked at the statistics and suggested that pregnant women over 35 should have an amniocentesis in case of Down’s Syndrome… I follow the advice. I take a day off and go to the hospital… I lie down on the examination table and feel the ultrasound probe moving over my belly. Still in my field work habits, or just to break the silence, I say to the nurse who is preparing the long needle that will be inserted into my womb: ‘I hope it all goes okay.’ We both know that a small percentage of women have a spontaneous abortion as a result of the procedure. The nurse snaps back: ‘Well, it is your own choice.’
This is no longer a system in which people are working together to produce health. This is an industry with products available for consumption or not. It has extraordinarily sophisticated ways to persuade your doctor to consume its products by putting them in your mouth. Often close to forcing you to take them, most of which you don’t need.
Very few of us can justify consuming Fast Foods by appealing to the symphony we are working on. Most of us consume our burger while consuming the latest Infotainment from systems that make information and entertainment. While the world may now have become a Village – just like food, the Village News is divorced from the connections that villages and food once had. Its global gossip.
Even the so-called scientific articles about the drugs you might consume are infotainment divorced from the things that actually happened when a drug was given in a controlled trial. The articles are almost always written by a ghost-writer who has never prescribed a drug in her life.
There is a balance we all need to find between producing and consuming. If part of our time is spent working for someone else who is producing stuff for others to consume and the rest of our time is spent consuming yet other stuff, without us actually producing anything, we end up infertile – alienated, men would say – and probably unhealthy or at greater risk of becoming unhealthy.
For millennia, the production of food and health were entwined. The Rx symbol for a prescription is an abbreviation of Recipe. The implication of the saying that it takes a Village to produce a Child is that the child is healthy. The knowledge of how to bring up children, ward off infections, alleviate problems using certain foods or herbs has been something passed down in families and communities. The pharmaceutical industry knows all about this. Trying to market ADHD, they found that the greatest barrier to getting treatment accepted was the presence of a grandmother who might caution against the child being treated because he’s just the same as his father was and look her son has turned out just fine.
The Village we live in now is not one in which one woman will tell another who has just been told that the bone scanner shows some bone thinning that getting out and running or working the garden is the best way to avoid fractures. It is a Village in which women will be pressured through fear to take bisphosphonates – among the most horrific drugs ever pushed – and will end up living greatly restricted and non-productive lives as a result.
Back in the 1950s pharmaceutical companies participated in the production of health. New antibiotics saved lives and got people off sick beds and back to work. This was a health that made us wealthier. It made sense for nations to think about providing treatments like this for free.
But now companies produce medical goods for consumption. These come tagged as health-giving. But where once you took the risk that went with drugs when you were in crisis, now your healthcare provider likely summons you in for checks and puts you on treatments you didn’t ask for. Where once the norm was a short course of a treatment like an antibiotic until you were well and except in the case of insulin it was extraordinarily rare to be on a treatment for life, now it’s unusual to find people not on anything and very unusual to find anyone over 50 not on several drugs for the rest of their lives. We are harming ourselves to make drug companies healthy, and even the United States is working as hard as it can to make sure that as many people as possible get as much access to drugs as possible.
How did we get to this point?
For anyone who thinks the only way to fight the alienating forces of the modern world is to join ISIS or some other fundamentalist movement or to drop out of the Euro, the food domain shows that it is possible to fight back against “a sterile modernity”. Fast Foods don’t have it all their own way. The Slow Food movement – a movement that began in Southern Europe – looks like its here to stay. We need to building a Slow Medicine movement.
To be continued.