Earlier this year, in the lead up to the UK general election, health care was a hot topic. With an ageing population, increasing rates of obesity and the rising incidence of cancer, it was clear that money alone could not solve this problem. However, the only solutions discussed by politicians, the media and the people, were either to spend more money, or attempt to save money by suffocating the system in the name of maximum efficiency. But surely the best way to save money and most importantly, improve the nation’s health is to prevent illness and disease in the first place. Of course, people need healthcare treatment right now, and that’s a major issue that warrants throwing more money at. But what about the long-term goal? We’re seemingly satisfied with the idea of getting older whilst sustaining an unhealthy lifestyle, and we’re in denial about the consequences.
The truth is, the only way the incidence of illness and the cost of healthcare will ever go down, is if we prevent illness in the first place. Sure, not all illnesses are preventable, but I bet you’d be surprised by how many are. In fact, the biggest killers in the UK are Heart Disease, Stroke, Cancer, Lung and Liver Diseases, and whilst the Department of Health claims roughly 20% of deaths by these killers are entirely avoidable, I’m sceptical about their methodology. It’s estimated that 90% of heart disease is preventable through a combination of diet, exercise and lifestyle changes. What’s more, as much as 95% of cancer causes are believed to be due to environmental factors. Aside from factors such as obesity, tobacco and overexposure to the sun that we typically associate with cancer, other non-genetic factors such as lifestyle, radiation and pollution are also contributing factors. The cancer research industry is huge and has achieved major breakthroughs which is necessary for current cases. But surely, if we spend all this money on cancer research, we should know more about how to prevent it and accordingly, the incidence of cancer should decrease. Why then, is it increasing? Why are the cancer research charities claiming we’re so close to ‘beating cancer’?
The conspiracy theorist in me has an answer, but doesn’t want to share it in fear of losing the credibility of the argument. This answer has something to do with pharmaceutical companies being very powerful and profit driven, and treating illness being far more profitable to them than cures and good health. Actually, good health is probably the worst thing that could happen to the US$300 billion a year industry. But that’s neither here nor there. The question we should be asking isn’t ‘why are we not preventing illness?’, but ‘how can we prevent illness?’. Many have openly criticised the medicalisation of mental health without realising the parallels that can be drawn between taking psychotropic drugs in order to maintain a socially stressful lifestyle, and taking blood pressure tablets in order to maintain an unhealthy diet. In reality, many psychotropic drugs are only marginally more effective than placebo, and rarely sufficient to overcome mental illness, which is something that cannot be said for most drugs prescribed for physical illnesses. But the whole concept of placebo illustrates my point beautifully. For me, from an unscientific perspective, placebo is the manifestation of our deeply subconsciously embedded psyche of ‘a pill for every ill’.
So with all this in mind, where should the conversation regarding healthcare go? Improved education, higher regulation and an increased use of taxes and subsidies in the food market. Improved education on nutrition, health and wellbeing both inside and outside of school is vital for a healthier nation. There should be more regulation of what goes in our food, how it’s produced and more information on the true nutritional value of what we buy. Increased spending on the NHS should also go towards improved food for inpatients who need a nutritious diet in hospital more than ever. Also, an increase on tax for unhealthy foods, and subsidies for healthy and organic foods would not only discourage people from sustaining an unhealthy diet, but also make a nutritional and healthy diet more accessible even to those on the lowest incomes. But ultimately, what we need is to change our attitude. We need to escape this delusion that we can live long, healthy and happy lives whilst sustaining our lifestyle by medicating. I’m hoping that by the next general election this approach will enter the debate, but in order for that to happen, we need to wake up.