July 31st 2012, 17:33The faint-hearted among us often question the suicidal bravery of mountaineers who risk their lives to climb the world's highest peaks. When asked why they climb the mountain, the stock-in-trade explanation is something like, "because it's there". It's similar to the response of the strong who do things against the public will or good "because they can".
Because it's there and because we can are two of the primary driving forces for the recent phenomenon of 'medicalisation', the subject of our Special Report this month (http://www.wddty.com/overdiagnosed-how-medicine-makes-the-healthy-sick.html). From a desire to catch and treat disease early - and, along the way, increase the market for its sponsors, the pharmaceutical industry - medicine is today harming the well.
Around one-third of people who regularly take drugs or undergo treatment don't need to; they are victims of 'medicalisation', and one of its three manifestations: arbitrary and tighter definitions of disease, over-diagnoses and over-treatment.
Many millions more of us are 'sick' today than we were even a generation ago. It's nothing to do with living longer, or even eating a nutritionally-poor diet: it's because some diseases are determined by the whims of medicine that regularly move the boundaries of conditions such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure and 'dangerous' cholesterol levels, and make patients of the healthy literally overnight.
Some members of committees that determine the parameters of disease have direct links with the pharmaceutical industry, whose products suddenly have a market that has mushroomed.
Then there is the use of sophisticated, and sensitive, screening technology, such as x-rays, mammography, MRI and CT scans. These technologies not only pick out tumours, they also see abnormalities. Abnormalities are extremely common, and they rarely - if ever - develop into disease, such as cancer.
This pattern of interpreting an abnormality as a potential killer has already got its own name in medicine: a pseudo-disease, yet it is treated as aggressively as any cancer, leading to medicalisation's third ugly side: over-treatment.
With over-treatment, women can have a full mastectomy, men undergo debilitating surgery and both can be on powerful drugs for the rest of their lives - all to treat a pseudo-disease.
Medicine is slowly waking up to the awful truth that it not only treats the sick, it also harms a growing minority of healthy people, too. Perhaps it has the conscience to see it must be reined in and curbed, and its close alliance with Big Pharma loosened, otherwise it is in danger of being the monster that ate itself.