The Dual Face of Medicine?

The history of medicine is undoubtedly fascinating, from prehistoric trephination, to the discovery of antibiotics, and the synthetic pharmaceutical revolution of the 20th century.

Nowadays medical advances are no less interesting, though more highly specialised. Recently there have been a number of cases that have received  a lot of media attention, namely the world’s most extensive face transplant. The surgery took 26 hours and over a hundred members of staff to complete – the end result is astonishing. Photo credit: New York University Langone Medical Center.

Another high profile case involved a paralysed man – after “nerve-supporting cells” were injected into his severed spinal cord, Darek Fidyka was able to walk again, promising hope for others suffering from paralysis. Even new research into the treatment of cancer using antibiotics is indicative of how far medicine has come even within the space of a decade.

Naturally however, ‘medicine’ is vulnerable to exploitation, and it is perhaps more subversive that previously imagined.

Consider for example the normalisation of non-essential cosmetic surgery, pseudo-scientific/medical jargon that has become a marketing tactic, and the increase in self-medicated drug use*.

In the US, UK and the EU, cosmetic surgery and advertising is regulated to varying degrees, but regulated nonetheless. With self-medication, the rules are different, particularly when it comes to ‘medical’ products bought over the internet. More often than not, these products are not regulated and contain dangerous substances. In other words they carry huge risks, with none of the medical expertise that properly prescribed treatment offers.

One particular ‘medical’ product that has garnered much attention recently is unregulated diet pills, which promise to drastically help with weight-loss. Despite the dangers, namely harmful industrial chemical ingredients such as DNP, there have been numerous cases of these drugs being taken, and the end result being death. What is perhaps more frightening however, is that this knowledge and information is available, yet people still choose to take the risk as highlighted by the Eloise Parry inquest.

This issue is not limited merely to the availability of dangerous ‘medical’ substances, but extends to shifting attitudes about health more broadly. We live in society where, as the saying goes, there is “a pill for every ill” -or at least in theory. Contributing to this is a culture of medicalisation, or pathologising. By this it is meant that certain ‘complaints’ have been presented as legitimate medical issues, that in actuality would not have previously received medical attention – see the phenomena of pathologising normal.

Is there anything we can do about? Perhaps not, it will remain difficult to regulate over-the-internet pills for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the dangers of pseudo-medicine and to raise awareness of them. Equally, human nature dictates that we like having labels as it makes things seem more manageable, thus it seems unlikely that we will stop creating ‘labels’.

* This is not necessarily a bad thing, it “has many potential benefits” but “collaboration between doctors and pharmacists will be critical”.


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