I recently spent some time very sick. Everyone gets sick at some point, and most people are lucky enough to live long enough to get pretty seriously ill once or twice; that’s not especially interesting. What’s interesting is that I got sick because I went to a hospital.
Now I’m going to let you know upfront: I don’t like hospitals. It’s just part of who I am; I have alternately hated and feared them for basically as long as I can remember, and as a rule, I actively avoid them as much as possible. Most of the times I’ve visited a hospital, it hasn’t been because I’m sick, but for others’ sake. Over the past year, I have spent about a dozen nights in hospitals, but never because I myself was in need of medical care. And every time that I have been sick or injured enough to warrant a visit to a hospital, the visit itself was much more traumatic for me than the injury or sickness that led to it.
So yeah, I’m biased. I don’t like hospitals, and I never have. But recently, when I went into a hospital entirely healthy and came out incredibly sick, I began to really conceptualize that my personal distrust and avoidance of hospitals might be justified. So I did some research.
Did you realize that one in twenty hospital patients in the United States contracts an infection as a result of their hospital visit? Now, five percent may not sound like much–especially to the Chemistry majors in the crowd–but, as it turns out, it’s not insignificant. Far from it. These infections, known as HAIs (short for Healthcare-Associated Infections, or, alternately, Hospital-Acquired Infections) are one of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States. Seriously. One study indicates that HAIs were responsible for the deaths of over 99,000 Americans in the year 2002. And that was before the mirco-organisms causing them began to develop antibiotic resistance. So these infections lead to a national tragedy about thirty-three times more serious than the September 11th terrorist attacks (which resulted in the deaths of 2,996 people) every year. And yet only about half the states in the USA even require hospitals to publicly report their HAI rates. So if you don’t live in one of those states, you are essentially playing Russian roulette when you go to the hospital. And even if you are lucky enough to live in a state with public reporting of HAI rates (like me), most of us (again, myself included) don’t check the HAI rate of our local hospital before paying a visit. You don’t need to keep something secret if no one bothers to read it when it’s published. Besides, twenty percent of American households have no access to the internet, which means that, as usual, the poor get screwed a lot harder than the rich.
Many people living in the “First World” seem to take it for granted that when you’re sick, you go to a doctor and they make it better. Even among people who like to think of themselves as rational, unbiased, and skeptical, I have encountered a bizarre degree of blind and unquestioning faith in the seemingly magical powers of modern medicine. When I suggest that modern industrial civilization does more harm than good, this is usually the first reply I hear from the defenders of the status quo. “But what about modern medicine?” they say. The implication is that, while the relative costs and benefits of factory farms, or fossil fuel energy, or internet use, are up for debate, modern medicine is out-of-bounds. Just about anything is on the table, but not that. If you’re against modern medicine, you’re not worth arguing with; you are simply dismissed.
But most of the things modern medicine is supposed to be curing are caused by civilization. Cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, even depression–these things are relatively unheard of outside of a modern industrial society. It’s not a coincidence that they are called the “diseases of civilization.” Many of these (like cancer) are the result of industrial pollution, while others (like depression) are the result of the intense dissonance between human psychological necessities and everyday life in a modern, industrial, civilized society. Even infectious disease itself, though it predates modern industrialism, is a result of civilization, and wasn’t really an issue before horticulture gave way to agriculture, and the Agricultural Revolution began. Epidemics don’t arise in diffuse populations of hunter-gatherer-fisher-gardeners living a decentralized and often migratory life. They arise in densely populated centralized cities with dangerously high concentrations of human excrement, and especially in cultures which rely heavily on animal domestication. There’s a reason that it was the Native Americans who succumbed in the millions to European diseases, and not the other way around.
So, in a sense, all modern medicine is palliative. Now, many of the palliatives it offers are really effective. I would go so far as to say that they are even miraculously effective, sometimes. But they miss the point. The real root cause of most illness is the structure of our society itself. Just as a smoker’s cough may be a symptom of lung cancer, the cancer itself is just a symptom too, a symptom of industrial pollution. And so just as a cough drop may temporarily clear up the cough, without getting to the root of the problem, so even a miracle cure for cancer wouldn’t solve the core issue of polluted air, water, and food. If someone poisoned you, and then proceeded to offer you an antidote for that poison’s painful effects (for a price, of course, and while continuing to administer the poison indefinitely), what would you think of that person? If someone beat you until you cried, but then offered you a tissue to dry your tears, what would your response to that person be?
I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t take the tissue, or the antidote. But I do mean that no amount of antidote, no number of tissues, could ever be good enough. The antidote may be miraculous, the result of a brilliant mind with good intentions, but all the same, I think I’d rather just not be poisoned in the first place. And barring that, I’d rather that we as a society stop poisoning ourselves and everyone else, that we work on curing the root of the problem–even if it means that I don’t get my miraculous palliatives.