We Get Unnecessary Medical Treatment Because We Want To

A link showed up on my Facebook news feed with this article, talking about the all too common practice of doctors pushing stents treatment  that don’t actually save our live for people who don’t need them.  I happened to have been listening to this podcast earlier today talking about the same thing when it comes to prostate screenings, cholesterol medicine, etc.  Both try to address the “why” of these things to varying degrees.  There is the cynical “because there’s money in it” or “the Doctors are too arrogant/too busy/too brainwashed/too much in CYA mode.”  I’m sure those elements play varying degrees case by case but I think there is more of an overriding reason we get these treatments, and that’s because we want them.

I don’t think anyone wants to be cut open and have their hearts worked on, be on cholesterol medicine the rest of their lives, et cetera.  However I do think that we are reluctant to, if not obstinate about, making the changes that often can lead to the prevention of these diseases.  You read case after case of people who have reversed heart disease and diabetes by radically improving their diet and increasing their activity levels.  You don’t even have to look very hard to see the patently obvious fact that for most people a healthy diet and light-to-moderate exercise is the recipe for avoiding the standard big health problems: cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.  Yet that’s not what people want to hear or read.

In the ProPublica article that prompted me to write this down it relates the patient having chest pains which lead to them seeking out several doctors all but one of whom told him he needed a stent.  He instead found one that had him substantially clean up his diet and it took care of his problem.  But how many people want to hear that answer or would actually follow through with it. Imagine two doctors talking to a patient complaining of chest pains and who is discovered to  have a partial blockage:

  • Doctor A: “You have a partial blockage so to take care of that and avoid a major heart attack you need to eat a very strict diet healthy diet the rest of your life and get more exercise.”
  • Doctor B: “You have a partial blockage so we are going to put this device in and give you these pills.  Oh and you should eat a little healthier and exercise a little more.”

Which of the answers do most people want to hear?  I would venture to say the latter.  When I asked my doctor to proactively do a scan to see if I had an artery blockages his response back was essentially, “Why? So you can feel complacent about eating right and exercising?”  He wasn’t as glib or accusatory but the essence of the comment was the same.  We really like eating crap and not moving enough.  I lump myself into that group as much as anyone else.  But it is literally killing us.  Avoiding these diseases and their precursors is easy and simple, but it’s not an answer we want to hear. We like having the safety blanket that with modern medicine we can fix it later by taking a pill or having a procedure that ultimately often doesn’t fix the problem but give us yet more of a safety blanket to continue avoiding regularly eating healthy and exercising.

So, sure, maybe all of these unnecessary procedures are because big pharma or doctors are greedy, or there is no money to be made in being told to eat healthy and to exercise right.  However I think in the end it is we ourselves who drive these statistics because it feels like the easier answer that absolves us from doing the right thing with our diet and lifestyle every day for the rest of our lives.

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