Beating Killers, Facing Demons: The Evolution of Healthcare
Healthcare changes as humanity changes. As far back as sixty thousand years ago, people were putting yarrow on wounds and trying to set broken bones. Today, while our healthcare system still handles acute injuries, we’ve been able to turn many former killers into manageable chronic conditions.
Germ theory, vaccinations, insulin, retroviral treatment – scientific advances like these mean that many people can expect a normal life span who would once have been cut down in their youth. On average, life expectancy around the world continues to increase.
But the story isn’t complete there, unfortunately. In the U.S., for the first time last year, life expectancy dropped.
We’ve contained and managed many of the ruthless killers of history – cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, influenza. But sociopolitical pressures have opened the doors to a new, insidious type of problem.
Conditions like obesity, depression and anxiety are leading to drug abuse and suicide at startling rates. (Globally, depression is the leading cause of disability, according to the WHO.) At the same time, those newly chronic conditions often come with new issues.
Part of the rise in the prevalence of conditions is an improvement in diagnosis. (For example, until the 1980s, medical professionals didn’t even think teenagers could get depression.)
But other elements are afoot. Global conflict, unrest, and high income inequality are all correlated with high rates of depression.
Multimedication issues are also a concern. Half of all Americans took a prescription drug in the last 30 days. Of those, the average person takes four different medications, usually from more than one healthcare provider.
The medical miracles, and the scientists behind them, that are improving and saving lives around the world are worth celebrating. At the same time, however, healthcare needs to adapt to these changing times.
We need to broaden our remit and consider how to put greater emphasis on mental health, addressing not only conditions like addiction and depression, but the situations that lead those predisposed to developing them.