True Medical Progress

By Byron E. Conner, M.D.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases.”
– Psalms 103:2-3

What is the best way for us to judge as to whether we have made the greatest strides in the advancement of medical progress?

We may be thinking of something spectacular like finding a cure for cancer, or some other devastating disease. We may think of some new cutting edge surgery or new powerful drugs. In fact, we often consider some new technology as a gauge for our making significant progress in medical science.

Periodically we are alerted to some new drug that enters the marketplace to treat diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or cancer. The truth of the matter is that all too often new is not really better, but in fact may just be more expensive. At times a new drug is found on close analysis to be no better than one that has been around for decades!

We may see the outrage of a new highly promoted drug that went through all the procedures of approval by the FDA, but is then found to be a dangerous drug and is then in ignominy withdrawn from the market. This has happened repeatedly over the past few decades.

New surgical procedures and techniques may come along and later we question the wisdom of too quickly doing these things in favor of more simple and conservative measures such as living a healthy lifestyle.

What we are talking about here is billions of dollars in profits being realized if the right drug or the right medical procedure can be discovered. This may also make our medical care far too expensive and denies too many people something more privileged and wealthy people have access too. So we have the “haves” and the “have nots” as far as medical services are concerned. We have a health gap wherein some enjoy relatively good health and good medical care and others die at a relatively young age while suffering an excess burden of suffering, and a relative lack of good affordable medical care.

We have something in our country called health disparities noted by the fact that minority and poorer people in general have more disease and a lower life expectancy. This may be related to economic, social, political factors, and actual discrimination. Ending these disparities does not seem to be a very high priority. Instead there is a mad rush to develop the new designer drug and the new high tech procedure. It is important to know that something simpler would be more beneficial.

Two recent studies are worth noting. One for an example notes that if the mortality gap between blacks and whites could be eliminated, about 83,570 excess deaths in the United States could be prevented each year. Another study notes that equalizing the mortality rates for blacks and whites would save over 800,000 lives in comparison to about 176,000 lives saved by new drugs and new procedures. Therefore ending disparities is far more fruitful and humane.

We can conclude that ending heath disparities in our country is one of the best measures of true medical progress.

We can only pray that this happens soon.

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