When 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’ offices.
This can be a good thing. Television helps shape how people feel and can raise awareness about health problems.
But, 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.
Take 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”.
Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 13 May 2005.