The Epidemics

of Modern Medicine


   During the past three generations the diseases afflicting Western societies have undergone dramatic changes.1 Polio, diphtheria, and tuberculosis are vanishing; one shot of an antibiotic often cures pneumonia or syphilis; and so many mass killers have come under control that two-thirds of all deaths are now associated with the diseases of old age. Those who die young are more often than not victims of accidents, violence, or suicide.2

   These changes in health status are generally equated with a decrease in suffering and attributed to more or to better medical care. Although almost everyone believes that at least one of his friends would not be alive and well except for the skill of a doctor, there is in fact no evidence of any direct relationship between this mutation of sickness and the so-called progress of medicine.3 The changes are

   dependent variables of political and technological transformations, which in turn are reflected in what doctors do and say; they are not significantly related to the activities that require the preparation, status, and costly equipment in which the health professions take pride.4 In addition, an expanding proportion of the new burden of disease of the last fifteen years is itself the result of medical intervention in favor of people who are or might become sick. It is doctor-made, or iatrogenic?

   After a century of pursuit of medical Utopia,6 and contrary to current conventional wisdom,7 medical services have not been important in producing the changes in life expectancy that have occurred. A vast amount of contemporary clinical care is incidental to the curing of disease, but the damage done by medicine to the health of individuals and populations is very significant. These facts are obvious, well documented, and well repressed.

Doctors' Effectiveness—An Illusion

   The study of the evolution of disease patterns provides evidence that during the last century doctors have affected epidemics no more profoundly than did priests during earlier times. Epidemics came and went, imprecated by both but touched by neither. They are not modified any more decisively by the rituals performed in medical clinics than by those customary at religious shrines.8 Discussion of the future of health care might usefully begin with the recognition of this fact.

   The infections that prevailed at the outset of the industrial age illustrate how medicine came by its reputation.9 Tuberculosis, for instance, reached a peak over two generations. In New York in 1812, the death rate was estimated to be higher than 700 per 10,000; by 1882, when Koch first isolated and cultured the bacillus, it had already declined to 370 per 10,000. The rate was down to 180 when the first sanatorium was opened in 1910, even though "consumption" still held second place in the mortality tables,10 After World War II, but before antibiotics became routine, it had slipped into eleventh place with a rate of 48. Cholera,11 dysentery,12 and typhoid similarly peaked and dwindled outside the physician's control. By the time their etiology was understood and their therapy had become specific, these diseases had lost much of their virulence and hence their social importance. The combined death rate from scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles among children up to fifteen shows that nearly 90 percent of the total decline in mortality between 1860 and 1965 had occurred before the introduction of antibiotics and widespread immunization.13 In part this recession may be attributed to improved housing and to a decrease in the virulence of micro-organisms, but by far the most important factor was a higher host-resistance due to better nutrition. In poor countries today, diarrhea and upper-respiratory-tract infections occur more frequently, last longer, and lead to higher mortality where nutrition is poor, no matter how much or how little medical care is available.14 In England, by the middle of the nineteenth century, infectious epidemics had been replaced by major malnutrition syndromes, such as rickets and pellagra. These in turn peaked and vanished, to be replaced by the diseases of early childhood and, somewhat later, by an increase in duodenal ulcers in young men. When these declined, the modern epidemics took over: coronary heart disease, emphysema, bronchitis, obesity, hypertension, cancer (especially of the lungs), arthritis, diabetes, and so-called mental disorders. Despite intensive research, we have no complete explanation for the genesis of these changes.15 But two things are certain: the professional practice of physicians cannot be credited with the elimination of old forms of mortality or morbidity, nor should it be blamed for the increased expectancy of life spent in suffering from the new diseases. For more than a century, analysis of disease trends has shown that the environment is the primary determinant of the state of general health of any population.16 Medical geography,17 the history of diseases,18 medical anthropology,19 and the social history of attitudes towards illness20 have shown that food,21 water,22 and air,23 in correlation with the level of sociopolitical equality24 and the cultural mechanisms that make it possible to keep the population stable,25 play the decisive role in determining how healthy grown-ups feel and at what age adults tend to die. As the older causes of disease recede, a new kind of malnutrition is becoming the most rapidly expanding modern epidemic.26 One-third of humanity survives on a level of undernourishment which would formerly have been lethal, while more and more rich people absorb ever greater amounts of poisons and mutagens in their food.27

   Some modern techniques, often developed with the help of doctors, and optimally effective when they become part of the culture and environment or when they are applied independently of professional delivery, have also effected changes in general health, but to a lesser degree. Among these can be included contraception, smallpox vaccination of infants, and such nonmedical health measures as the treatment of water and sewage, the use of soap and scissors by midwives, and some antibacterial and insecticidal procedures. The importance of many of these practices was first recognized and stated by doctors—often courageous dissidents who suffered for their recommendations28—but this does not consign soap, pincers, vaccination needles, delousing preparations, or condoms to the category of "medical equipment." The most recent shifts in mortality from younger to older groups can be explained by the incorporation of these procedures and devices into the layman's culture.

   In contrast to environmental improvements and modern nonprofessional health measures, the specifically medical treatment of people is never significantly related to a decline in the compound disease burden or to a rise in life expectancy.29 Neither the proportion of doctors in a population nor the clinical tools at their disposal nor the number of hospital beds is a causal factor in the striking changes in over-all patterns of disease. The new techniques for recognizing and treating such conditions as pernicious anemia and hypertension, or for correcting congenital malformations by surgical intervention, redefine but do not reduce morbidity. The fact that the doctor population is higher where certain diseases have become rare has little to do with the doctors' ability to control or eliminate them.30 It simply means that doctors deploy themselves as they like, more so than other professionals, and that they tend to gather where the climate is healthy, where the water is clean, and where people are employed and can pay for their services.31

Useless Medical Treatment

   Awe-inspiring medical technology has combined with egalitarian rhetoric to create the impression that contemporary medicine is highly effective. Undoubtedly, during the last generation, a limited number of specific procedures have become extremely useful. But where they are not monopolized by professionals as tools of their trade, those which are applicable to widespread diseases are usually very inexpensive and require a minimum of personal skills, materials, and custodial services from hospitals. In contrast, most of today's skyrocketing medical expenditures are destined for the kind of diagnosis and treatment whose effectiveness at best is doubtful.32 To make this point I will distinguish between infectious and noninfectious diseases.

   In the case of infectious diseases, chemotherapy has played a significant role in the control of pneumonia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Death from pneumonia, once the "old man's friend," declined yearly by 5 to 8 percent after sulphonamides and antibiotics came on the market. Syphilis, yaws, and many cases of malaria and typhoid can be cured quickly and easily. The rising rate of venereal

   disease is due to new mores, not to ineffectual medicine. The reappearance of malaria is due to the development of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes and not to any lack of new antimalarial drugs.33 Immunization has almost wiped out paralytic poliomyelitis, a disease of developed countries, and vaccines have certainly contributed to the decline of whooping cough and measles,34 thus seeming to confirm the popular belief in "medical progress." 35 But for most other infections, medicine can show no comparable results. Drug treatment has helped to reduce mortality from tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, and scarlet fever, but in the total decline of mortality or morbidity from these diseases, chemotherapy played a minor and possibly insignificant role.36 Malaria, leishmaniasis, and sleeping sickness indeed receded for a time under the onslaught of chemical attack, but are now on the rise again.37

   The effectiveness of medical intervention in combatting noninfectious diseases is even more questionable. In some situations and for some conditions, effective progress has indeed been demonstrated: the partial prevention of caries through fluoridation of water is possible, though at a cost not fully understood.38 Replacement therapy lessens the direct impact of diabetes, though only in the short run.39 Through intravenous feeding, blood transfusions, and surgical techniques, more of those who get to the hospital survive trauma, but survival rates for the most common types of cancer—those which make up 90 percent of the cases—have remained virtually unchanged over the last twenty-five years. This fact has consistently been clouded by announcements from the American Cancer Society reminiscent of General Westmoreland's proclamations from Vietnam. On the other hand, the diagnostic value of the Papanicolaou vaginal smear test has been proved: if the tests are given four times a year, early intervention for cervical cancer demonstrably increases the five-year survival rate. Some skin-cancer treatment is highly effective. But there is little evidence of effective treatment of most other cancers.40 The five-year survival rate in breast-cancer cases is 50 percent, regardless of the frequency of medical check-ups and regardless of the treatment used.41 Nor is there evidence that the rate differs from that among untreated women. Although practicing doctors and the publicists of the medical establishment stress the importance of early detection and treatment of this and several other types of cancer, epidemiologists have begun to doubt that early intervention can alter the rate of survival.42 Surgery and chemotherapy for rare congenital and rheumatic heart disease have increased the chances for an active life for some of those who suffer from degenerative conditions.43 The medical treatment of common cardiovascular disease44 and the intensive treatment of heart disease,45 however, are effective only when rather exceptional circumstances combine that are outside the physician's control. The drug treatment of high blood pressure is effective and warrants the risk of side-effects in the few in whom it is a malignant condition; it represents a considerable risk of serious harm, far outweighing any proven benefit, for the 10 to 20 million Americans on whom rash artery-plumbers are trying to foist it.46

 Doctor-Inflicted Injuries

   Unfortunately, futile but otherwise harmless medical care is the least important of the damages a proliferating medical enterprise inflicts on contemporary society. The pain, dysfunction, disability, and anguish resulting from technical medical intervention now rival the morbidity due to traffic and industrial accidents and even war-related activities, and make the impact of medicine one of the most rapidly spreading epidemics of our time. Among murderous institutional torts, only modern malnutrition injures more people than iatrogenic disease in its various manifestations.47 In the most narrow sense, iatrogenic disease includes only illnesses that would not have come about if sound and professionally recommended treatment had not been applied.48 Within this definition, a patient could sue his therapist if the latter, in the course of his management, failed to apply a recommended treatment that, in the physician's opinion, would have risked making him sick. In a more general and more widely accepted sense, clinical iatrogenic disease comprises all clinical conditions for which remedies, physicians, or hospitals are the pathogens, or "sickening" agents. I will call this plethora of therapeutic side-effects clinical iatrogenesis. They are as old as medicine itself,49 and have always been a subject of medical studies.50

   Medicines have always been potentially poisonous, but their unwanted side-effects have increased with their power31 and widespread use.52 Every twenty-four to thirty-six hours, from 50 to 80 percent of adults in the United States and the United Kingdom swallow a medically prescribed chemical. Some take the wrong drug; others get an old or a contaminated batch, and others a counterfeit;53 others take several drugs in dangerous combinations;54 and still others receive injections with improperly sterilized syringes.55 Some drugs are addictive, others mutilating, and others mutagenic, although perhaps only in combination with food coloring or insecticides. In some patients, antibiotics alter the normal bacterial flora and induce a superinfection, permitting more resistant organisms to proliferate and invade the host. Other drugs contribute to the breeding of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.56 Subtle kinds of poisoning thus have spread even faster than the bewildering variety and ubiquity of nostrums.57 Unnecessary surgery is a standard procedure.58 Disabling nondiseases result from the medical treatment of nonexistent diseases and are on the increase:59 the number of children disabled in Massachusetts through the treatment of cardiac non-disease exceeds the number of children under effective treatment for real cardiac disease.60

   Doctor-inflicted pain and infirmity have always been a part of medical practice.61 Professional callousness, negligence, and sheer incompetence are age-old forms of malpractice.62 With the transformation of the doctor from an artisan exercising a skill on personally known individuals into a technician applying scientific rules to classes of patients, malpractice acquired an anonymous, almost respectable status.63 What had formerly been considered an abuse of confidence and a moral fault can now be rationalized into the occasional breakdown of equipment and operators. In a complex technological hospital, negligence becomes "random human error" or "system breakdown," callousness becomes "scientific detachment," and incompetence becomes "a lack of specialized equipment." The depersonalization of diagnosis and therapy has changed malpractice from an ethical into a technical problem.64

   In 1971, between 12,000 and 15,000 malpractice suits were lodged in United States courts. Less than half of all malpractice claims were settled in less than eighteen months, and more than 10 percent of such claims remain unsettled for over six years. Between 16 and 20 percent of every dollar paid in malpractice insurance went to compensate the victim; the rest was paid to lawyers and medical experts.65 In such cases, doctors are vulnerable only to the charge of having acted against the medical code, of the incompetent performance of prescribed treatment, or of dereliction out of greed or laziness. The problem, however, is that most of the damage inflicted by the modern doctor does not fall into any of these categories.66 It occurs in the ordinary practice of well-trained men and women who have learned to bow to prevailing professional judgment and procedure, even though they know (or could and should know) what damage they do.

   The United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare calculates that 7 percent of all patients suffer compensable injuries while hospitalized, though few of them do anything about it. Moreover, the frequency of reported accidents in hospitals is higher than in all industries but mines and high-rise construction. Accidents are the major cause of death in American children. In proportion to the time spent there, these accidents seem to occur more often in hospitals than in any other kind of place. One in fifty children admitted to a hospital suffers an accident which requires specific treatment.67 University hospitals are relatively more pathogenic, or, in blunt language, more sickening. It has also been established that one out of every five patients admitted to a typical research hospital acquires an iatrogenic disease, sometimes trivial, usually requiring special treatment, and in one case in thirty leading to death. Half of these episodes result from complications of drug therapy; amazingly, one in ten comes from diagnostic procedures.68 Despite good intentions and claims to public service, a military officer with a similar record of performance would be relieved of his command, and a restaurant or amusement center would be closed by the police. No wonder that the health industry tries to shift the blame for the damage caused onto the victim, and that the dope-sheet of a multinational pharmaceutical concern tells its readers that "iatrogenic disease is almost always of neurotic origin." 69

Defenseless Patients

   The undesirable side-effects of approved, mistaken, callous, or contraindicated technical contacts with the medical system represent just the first level of pathogenic medicine. Such clinical iatrogenesis includes not only the damage that doctors inflict with the intent of curing or of exploiting the patient, but also those other torts that result from the doctor's attempt to protect himself against the possibility of a suit for malpractice. Such attempts to avoid litigation and prosecution may now do more damage than any other iatrogenic stimulus.

   On a second level,70 medical practice sponsors sickness by reinforcing a morbid society that encourages people to become consumers of curative, preventive, industrial, and environmental medicine. On the one hand defectives survive in increasing numbers and are fit only for life under institutional care, while on the other hand, medically certified symptoms exempt people from industrial work and thereby remove them from the scene of political struggle to reshape the society that has made them sick. Second-level iatrogenesis finds its expression in various symptoms of social overmedicalization that amount to what I shall call the expropriation of health. This second-level impact of medicine I designate as social iatrogenesis, and I shall discuss it in Part II.

   On a third level, the so-called health professions have an even deeper, culturally health-denying effect insofar as they destroy the potential of people to deal with their human weakness, vulnerability, and uniqueness in a personal and autonomous way. The patient in the grip of contemporary medicine is but one instance of mankind in the grip of its pernicious techniques.71 This cultural iatrogenesis, which I shall discuss in Part III, is the ultimate backlash of hygienic progress and consists in the paralysis of healthy responses to suffering, impairment, and death. It occurs when people accept health management designed on the engineering model, when they conspire in an attempt to produce, as if it were a commodity, something called "better health." This inevitably results in the managed maintenance of life on high levels of sublethal illness. This ultimate evil of medical "progress" must be clearly distinguished from both clinical and social iatrogenesis.

   I hope to show that on each of its three levels iatrogenesis has become medically irreversible: a feature built right into the medical endeavor. The unwanted physiological, social, and psychological by-products of diagnostic and therapeutic progress have become resistant to medical remedies. New devices, approaches, and organizational arrangements, which are conceived as remedies for clinical and social iatrogenesis, themselves tend to become pathogens contributing to the new epidemic. Technical and managerial measures taken on any level to avoid damaging the patient by his treatment tend to engender a self-reinforcing iatrogenic loop analogous to the escalating destruction generated by the polluting procedures used as antipollution devices.72

   I will designate this self-reinforcing loop of negative institutional feedback by its classical Greek equivalent and call it medical nemesis. The Greeks saw gods in the forces of nature. For them, nemesis represented divine vengeance visited upon mortals who infringe on those prerogatives the gods enviously guard for themselves. Nemesis was the inevitable punishment for attempts to be a hero rather than a human being. Like most abstract Greek nouns, Nemesis took the shape of a divinity. She represented nature's response to hubris: to the individual's presumption in seeking to acquire the attributes of a god. Our contemporary hygienic hubris has led to the new syndrome of medical nemesis.73

   By using the Greek term I want to emphasize that the corresponding phenomenon does not fit within the explanatory paradigm now offered by bureaucrats, therapists, and ideologues for the snowballing diseconomies and disutilities that, lacking all intuition, they have engineered and that they tend to call the "counterintuitive behavior of large systems." By invoking myths and ancestral gods I should make it clear that my framework for analysis of the current breakdown of medicine is foreign to the industrially determined logic and ethos. I believe that the reversal of nemesis can come only from within man and not from yet another managed (heteronomous) source depending once again on presumptious expertise and subsequent mystification.

   Medical nemesis is resistant to medical remedies. It can be reversed only through a recovery of the will to self-care among the laity, and through the legal, political, and institutional recognition of the right to care, which imposes limits upon the professional monopoly of physicians. My final chapter proposes guidelines for stemming medical nemesis and provides criteria by which the medical enterprise can be kept within healthy bounds. I do not suggest any specific forms of health care or sick-care, and I do not advocate any new medical philosophy any more than I recommend remedies for medical technique, doctrine, or organization. However, I do propose an alternative approach to the use of medical organization and technology together with the allied bureaucracies and illusions.