Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Does Health Mean More Than Avoiding Risk?

If our society is going to be  healthy population it will mean making everyone healthy.  Self-evidently we’ll also have to think about what it means to be healthy.

Often, we do think about this – but usually by considering what the risks are and how to avoid them.  That means, we ask whether we can make life less harmful by changing something, and then we ask what change to make (and what it will cost).

Rarely do we ask: what sort of health do we expect – especially if we also have to accord that level of health to everyone?

There’s something about the risk question that goes against the concept of health for all.  Almost always, the risk we talk about pertains to us:  what can we affluent, educated people in the U.S. do to make sure we don’t get sick (or die) tomorrow? It’s not very often that we ask about risks for people who can’t get the recommended exercise or eat the recommended fruits and vegetables because they have kids and no job.  Not too often that we are concerned about the risks of medicating adolescents (see below) for people who can’t make such assessments because their kids are incarcerated.  When health = avoidance of risk, we mean “health for people like us.”

Not that the risk question is frivolous.  It gets particularly poignant when it comes to children.  For instance, Liz Borkowski posted a valuable note at The Pump Handle last week about the use of antipsychotic drugs for children.  She was commenting on a post by Alison Bass that was concerned with “shilling for Big Pharma,” about the death of a 12-year-old Florida boy who was on several medications.

Whether the world we’ve made is dangerous to our kids is a question that can’t be ignored.  But we also have to remember that it’s only one side of the story, and it’s only part of that one side (the part that pertains to people like us).

Often, we hear a plea for a deeper conversation about health.  It’s what we are hearing when parents of autistic children ask about vaccine safety, or others ask whether the prominence of the autism epidemic is going to translate into better treatment for autistic adults (as Karl Taro Greenfeld did in “Growing Old With Autism” in the NY Times, 23 May).

It’s what we are hearing when parents of troubled children allege that pediatric bipolar disorder is underdiagnosed or when others argue that it’s overdiagnosed.

These voices aren’t talking about risk; they’re speaking in a different register.  They’re talking about suffering, and the alleviation of suffering, and asking what sort of responsibility the society (or the state) is going to take.

Too often, we can only hear the risk part, not the alleviation-of-suffering part.  We react to the allegations that vaccines cause autism, for instance.  Some people are attracted by the lure of an easy-to-blame culprit (vaccines or other products of Big Pharma, immunization guidelines or other policies of Big Medicine) and join the bandwagon; others are repelled by the anti-immunizationists’ failure to venerate Big Science, and ridicule the parents who don’t want their kids vaccinated.  But not too many people interpret what they’re hearing as a cry for more caring, rather than a demand to identify risks.

In the health professions, we’re especially given to hearing such claims in terms of risk, rather than health-vs.-suffering.  For instance, we take notice when (as Sarah Rubinstein points out at WSJ Health Blog), the pharmaceutical industry talks about having a role in the conversation over the costs of health care  as the WSJ reported on 26 May.

But the reason we’re interested is often because we want to debate how to structure the healthcare industry rather than because we really want to discuss how much caring there should be in healthcare.

This isn’t a matter of idealism or some kind of touchy-feely hippie alternative to industrialized medicine.  It’s a real, and realistic question.  No rational person wants to give up effective medication for people who are suffering, or wants our society to stop doing research that would tell us if certain drugs might be harmful.  But to think only about the risks and not about the suffering part is to blind ourselves to the more difficult – and more essentially human – questions about health.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, May 30th, 2009 at 6:47 pm and is filed under Disease, Health Professions, public health, Risk. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.