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The health industry

In the last century, there have been fantastic advances in biology and medicine, developments of drugs, and new surgical techniques. This has produced immense industrial activity in drugs, treatment equipment, and professional expertise in every conceivable area. There is therefore no question that humanity benefits from many advances, but we are discussing the dark side as well, so I will remind you of other factors.

Life expectancy has increased in virtually all nations, not just those with highly advanced healthcare. The USA, where the largest sums are spent, only ranks around thirty-fourth (men) and thirty-sixth (women) in terms of life expectancy of the different nations. The UK, with a free health service, is slightly better at twentieth and twenty-fifth. But both examples show that high spending on healthcare does not necessarily equate to longevity. Indeed, the numbers may actually be distorted by our ability to sustain nominal life in many patients who, in reality, may not to wish to survive in physically or mentally intolerable conditions. This prolongation is currently more likely to happen in richer nations. Life expectancy is strongly dependent on income, lifestyle, and education. Hence, within a single country there are large regional and social differences.

Illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are present in more than a million people in the UK and the USA, and the numbers are obviously increasing annually. At the other end of the age range, the USA has, for the first time, a youth generation that is less fit and athletic than were their parents at the same age. Self-induced diseases related to obesity are still increasing. At least in the UK, a vigorous anti-smoking campaign has made a marked reduction in cancers and other diseases previously seen because of smoking. The education involved in this was far less costly than the health bills to the country (and to the pain and suffering of the patients and their families). Therefore, political actions of this type are effective and should continue with more vigour, as the savings are evident to the politicians. Benefits of better self-care and foresight are obvious in areas such as cancer and obesity, since between one and two thirds of cases are the consequence of activities of smoking, alcohol, drugs, overeating, etc.

There is an emerging pattern of increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics and other drugs, because the various diseases mutate and survive. This is an essential reason we should minimize drug treatments that are prescribed just because patients request them. Equally, treatments to animals and agricultural products should be more targeted and minimized. Our ability to develop new drugs faster than the mutations of the bacteria and diseases may not be feasible. We must also recognize that healthcare is expensive at every level, from treatment, to facilities, skilled personnel, drugs, and equipment. Although the quality and costs are extremely variable within and between nations, profits are large, and so are the sales and marketing efforts. Publicity is rarely focussed on the improvements we can easily achieve by changing our lifestyles. It is certainly effective, as many self-help groups greatly assist in areas as varied as alcoholism, drug abuse, and relationships with other people. So, in my move to an improved species in the new Anthropocene epoch, a logical advance is to spend far more of the medical budget on education of how to live a healthy life, encourage physical activity, and avoid temptations of overeating, drugs, alcohol, and other excesses. Here I am actually hopeful of some success, as politically this will be a measurable and quantifiable economy for each region. It may also produce fitter, healthier, and happier nations. The only downside might be an increase in population as a result of the pleasures of a fitter life.

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