Saturday April 15, 2006
It’s not every day that you wake up to find that a favourite bÃªte noir is making headline news, but this week, to my amazement, the media collectively decided to pick up on an obscure report and conference on “medicalisation” in Australia. “Drug companies are inventing diseases to sell more of their products, it has been claimed,” said the Daily Mail.
“Scientists have accused major pharmaceutical firms of ‘medicalising’ problems like high cholesterol or the symptoms of the menopause in a bid to increase profits … exaggerating conditions and turning them into something more serious. Female sexual dysfunction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and ‘restless legs’ syndrome have all been promoted by the pharmaceutical industry in the hope of selling more drugs, they say.”
Now, this is an incredibly interesting set of ideas, but what is even more fascinating is how medicalisation was consistently presented as something that is done to us, as passive recipients, by powerful drug companies. This seems particularly odd since just months ago the Daily Mail, for example, was telling us that “Night Eating Syndrome affects an estimated 1 million people in the UK.” More than that, for 30% of sufferers “their symptoms were wiped out” with Sertraline.
The article was based on a study funded by Pfizer, and that won’t have broken the bank since it had 17 subjects, wasn’t blinded, and didn’t have a placebo control group, for the simple reason that it didn’t have any control group at all. Pfizer did not work hard to get their story out there.
But of course, medicalisation of our problems isn’t just something that drug companies and the media are selling, it’s something we are buying. Looking at food intolerance alone, more than 40% of people are estimated to suffer from food intolerance, according to Allergy UK, a popular charity and pressure group (and founding publishers of Allergy, a lifestyle magazine). That’s 25 million people.
Meanwhile the front cover of the new book by Patrick Holford, ubiquitous and bestselling author, reads: “One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Half the population is a very big market if you can persuade them all, and if he can, Holford is also recommending and endorsing vitamin pills to treat this condition. Its “classic symptoms” include, to take Holford’s own list, “weight gain, strong food cravings, bloating, abdominal pain, irritable bowel, diarrhoea, constipation, fatigue, depression, hyperactivity and bedwetting in children, rhinitis, eczema, itches, rashes, asthma, sinus problems, ear infections, mouth ulcers, headaches and migraines, joint aches and pains.” I believe I may have had some of those.
Meanwhile, there are pseudoscientific diagnostic tests to measure intolerance to specific foods, ranging from Vega testing, an exotic machine that measures electromagnetic field in response to holding samples of foods in containers, to a vast market in dubious allergy blood tests. It would be madness to deny that people have unpleasant symptoms, and for some they may be related to certain foods: the question is, what do we add by giving it a biomedical label, rolling out the diagnosis to include half the population, “diagnosing” it with dubious tests, or treating it with unproven interventions?
More importantly, why should we feel the need to give all distress and discomfort a sciencey label, if that label is tenuous? How do we gain from that? Is the distress and discomfort not enough in itself? If drug companies, the media, alternative therapists, and shops are all selling medicalisation, that’s only half the story: much more interesting is the fact that we are buying it.
We have collectively got to a point where distress and discomfort are only legitimate when they have an objective biomedical diagnosis, and we’re all players in that game. To pretend that medicalisation is something that is done to us – by evil, powerful outside influences – only plays up to a dangerous sense of passivity.