Are we really curing medical problems or just creating bigger, better Band-aids?
Here are two recent headlines that made the front page of major news outlets:
Wow! Amazing! What wonderful news!
Maybe not. This “great” news reveals a fundamental problem with the state of medical research: we’re treating symptoms instead of the problem.
An Automobile Analogy
Let’s say your car is making weird noises — whirrs, clicks, bangs, and wheezes that just don’t sound normal. You’re not a “car guy,” so you take it to a mechanic. You explain what the symptoms are (with sound effects) as best you can. He opens the hood, takes a few minutes to look it over and then asks, “When’s the last time the oil was changed?”
You try to recall the last visit to the local lube shop, but come up blank. “I don’t know,” you reply, “It’s been awhile. Why do you ask?”
After checking the odometer and the sticker on the windshield, the mechanic calmly explains, “Well, it looks like your last oil change was about 15,000 miles ago. The manufacturer suggests changing the oil every 3 to 5 thousand miles. I think we’re probably looking at rebuilding the engine, which is gonna take some time. That’s not going to be cheap.”
Not willing to admit to a tragic mistake, nor pay a huge bill, you shoot back, “Look, I’m not here to be told how to maintain my vehicle, I just want you to make the funny noises go away!”
“But… you see… I can’t just…” he stammers.
“Make the sounds go away!” you demand.
The mechanic, needing to feed his family, devises a devious plan. “OK. We can do that,” he promises. “We have a new product that will make it so you never hear another funny noise again!” Instead of rebuilding the engine, he installs special acoustic insulation that blocks all outside noise to the inside of the car. He claims, “With this new fix, you won’t hear a thing!”
Satisfied with his solution, you drive away happy, but deceived that your broken car is fixed. A month later your engine completely seizes up and dies. Bringing an end to your car and this analogy.
How This Relates to Medicine & Health
Sadly, this is how we often approach our bodies. We expect medicine to quickly fix what we’ve been breaking over a lifetime. We don’t want to be told that our methods of living are wrong. We want to take a pill and continue uninterrupted on the course we’ve been heading. We want a magic Band-aid instead of a real cure.
So, medical research and treatments often focus on alleviating symptoms rather than curing fundamental problems, because that’s what we want. We may use drug regimens, liposuction, and cosmetic cover-ups to make the symptoms go away, but we have ignored why those symptoms are happening in the first place.
This is foolish.
Attack the root
Symptoms are indicators that something bigger (and probably worse) is going on. Acne and obesity are merely warning signs. We can take down the warning signs, but that doesn’t get rid of the danger. No matter how many coats of paint we put on the outside, the inside is still rotting away. I hope that we eventually wake up and learn to recognize what is really happening. Let’s start attacking the root of the problems we experience, not just the symptoms.
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The heart, the heart,— there was the little yet boundless sphere wherein existed the original wrong of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inward sphere, and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms and vanish of their own accord…
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Earth’s Holocaust,” Mosses from an Old Manse