Monday, January 28, 2013

Underlying Causes NOT Disease: Shifting our view of health

Cardiovascular diseases cause more deaths around the world than any other condition - more than 17 million, or about 30%. By 2030, the World Health Organization predicts these numbers to continue climbing upward, to about 25 million. And this global epidemic is not cheap. It's the principle driver of health care costs in many countries (including the U.S.), and is going to cost the global economy $47 trillion by 2030 - yes, that is trillion with a "t".

But as important as it is to diagnose a health condition like heart disease - particularly from a disease surveillance perspective - it unfortunately says little about the condition's underlying root causes. At the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos last week, Dr. Mark Hyman described the issue by saying, "We have a naming problem...and we confuse the name [of disease] with the cause."

Dr. Hyman has been pioneering an approach to health called functional medicine, which is concerned more with ways to achieve health rather than treat disease. This may sound intuitive, but there are strong, built-in incentives in our health system that tend to favor doctors writing prescriptions rather than discussing strategies to prevent illness in the first place.

For those public health folks out there, this sounds quite similar to something called "social medicine," which looks at how social and economic conditions impact health (like socio-economic status, education, where someone lives), and has been recently championed by the public health physician/advocate Dr. Paul Farmer.


As I've written in several previous posts, I strongly believe in the power of things like food, sleep, exercise, and relaxation to achieve better health (and therefore prevent illness). During his interview in Davos last week, Dr. Hyman does a wonderful job of explaining why this approach to health not only makes sense from a medical perspective, but also from a policy perspective, helping us reverse the seemingly uncontrollable costs associated with healthcare.

Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below.

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