The Distrust of Doctors

Last month I wrote about our growing “culture of fear”—how information sources from the media to our Facebook friends are all telling us how dangerous the world is. As friend after friend shared their concerns about food or medicine, politics or the environment, I began to wonder. Should we be alarmed about everything?

God tells us that He has everything in hand, so we have no need to worry. Still. I had to ask—are the doomsayers correct? I decided to find out. Since medical choices affect us directly, and because of my biology background, I decided to start there.

Is conventional medicine making us sicker?

Rather than seeing an M.D., an increasing number of my friends and relatives are opting for an assortment of alternative treatments ranging from magnets to homeopathy. The premise is that modern medicine is morally and scientifically bankrupt, ignoring natural cures and making us sicker through the use of drugs and invasive treatments. People are becoming fearful and distrustful of traditional doctors. Many parents are reluctant to immunize their children, believing the vaccines are unnecessary and dangerous. Are they? An elderly relative is so convinced that prescription drugs cause cancer, he refused to take any pain-killers when he had surgery! Do they?

Curious about the source of the latter belief, Pete and I did some online research. What we found is a perfect example of how people can misinterpret scientific research. Here are some headlines, gleaned from a November 23, 2009 article on GeriPal:

The news articles were reporting on several studies that did suggest a link between opiates (both those given as pain killers and those found naturally in the body) and the spread of pre-existing cancer cells. A scientist would look at this research and agree that further investigation is warranted. However, nothing in any of these studies suggests that morphine causes cancer!

Then there’s the issue of immunizations. Are they safe? The initial fear had to do with a study published back in 1998, linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Since it was published, the study has been revealed to be an elaborate hoax. There is no connection between the two, and the doctor who published the research (and stood to gain financially from related lawsuits) was stripped of his medical license. Still, many parents are afraid to vaccinate their children. Now there’s concern that the DTaP causes SIDS. Numerous studies have also debunked that link, but rumors persist. To learn more, check out these articles by NPR, ImmunizeForGood.com, and the CDC.

It’s not just medicine. Many people have become leery of science in general. Perhaps we’re suspicious because we don’t quite understand it. Or, we’ve heard the scientific establishment (or the media) cry “wolf” once too many times over things that turned out to be inconsequential or blatantly false. In writing this post, I encountered numerous websites spewing all sorts of authoritative-sounding baloney, seeking to profit from our fears. Someone who lacks a science background has no way of ascertaining which site contains reliable information and which one is spouting nonsense. One thing is sure—we all need a good dose of humility. I’m sure we don’t know half of what we think we know.

Rather addressing the rest of these fears on an individual basis, I decided to skip ahead to the end result. If modern medicine is as bad for our health as some folks believe, one would expect people to be dying sooner. With that in mind, I looked up life expectancy in the U.S.

Far from declining, I discovered that our life expectancy has risen from an average in 1900 of 47 years for white men and 33 years for black men, to 75 and 68 years, respectively, in the year 2000. (Across the board, women live a bit longer). That’s a huge increase!

(Don’t be fooled by a reported increase in deaths by heart disease and cancer. To a large degree, those rates have gone up because everything else has gone down. Instead of dying from scarlet fever at age 10, we die from heart disease at 90. Remember, the percentages have to add up to 100% no matter what is ultimately killing us.)

Our life expectancy continues to improve. In 2010, the last year I could get figures for, the average (all races and genders) life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.7 years. That’s not cause for concern. That’s good news!

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