American Elephants

The Hippopotamus in the Health Care Room. by The Elephant's Child

There is a hippopotamus in the health care room, that nobody mentions.   The progress of medicine in recent years has been stunning.  At the time of the Civil War, doctors were just learning about cleanliness in operations and anesthetics like ether were relatively new.  Aspirin to relieve pain was introduced by Bayer in 1900.  Sulfa drugs to prevent infection became available around 1935, though many were allergic.  Penicillin was first mass-produced in 1944, late in World War II.

The progress in medicine since that time has been amazing.  Medical imaging and all sorts of new lab tests measure things we never dreamed of measuring before.  You would think that Americans would relax in the confidence that their wonderful health care system could take care of most of whatever ills or discomforts came up.

What has happened instead is an obsession with health.  Can you pick up a magazine or newspaper that does not have one or more articles on caring for your health?  Radio and television ads extol the value of drugs or over-the-counter remedies.  There are magazines devoted to weight loss, healthy eating, body building, exercise, and specific forms of exercise.  There is a proliferation of gyms — at least in larger towns, and stores that sell gym equipment.  You can find medical advice and information on the internet. There are stores that sell nothing but supplements.

We have become a nation of hypochondriacs.

Grocery stores have special departments for “organic” foods.  Mayors of major cities ban things like “trans-fats” though trans-fats have never been shown to harm anyone.  People have become advocates of “localism” in foods — completely ignoring the blessing of having fresh summer fruits in the stores in midwinter, delivered by air from the Southern Hemisphere.

Some journalists have developed a specialty of writing about food, or health, or exercise.  They report on new studies without the ability to tell whether the sample is significant or if the results are verifiable.  Fraudulent studies about mercury in immunizations causing autism led many mothers to refuse to immunize their children with the result that some diseases like measles have returned.  On any given day you can hear conflicting medical advice.  The manufacturers of Lipitor are advertising on the radio to see their ad in a cooking magazine, at the same time that there are reports in the news that statins don’t do any good.  (check with your doctor)

What is the effect of all this on the health care debate?  We laugh at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banning toys in happy meals from McDonalds.

My state government has banned phosphates in dishwasher soap.  Excessive phosphates in dishwasher soap may cause 3% of the algae in streams that may or may not disturb fish.  The deposit left by my un-phosphated dishwasher soap may be injurious to my health, I am told.  My dishes have a nasty film, as do my drinking glasses, and they may be becoming permanently etched.

We have gone from butter to margarine, to margarines made with olive oil or canola oil and water whipped in, back to butter, and now the FDA has decided that it’s not fats that are the bad stuff, but carbohydrates.  There are organizations of radical vegetarians who want to eliminate meat, and force everyone to become vegetarian. It never ends.  Michelle Obama has said that what our children eat cannot just be up to the parents.

This is all nonsense.  Just stop it.


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