People don’t like pain or discomfort. Whether it’s emotional or physical, we will go to great lengths to avoid pain. We’ll even do so at the expense of our future health. Doctors understand this and, as a result, tend to treat the symptoms of health conditions (rather than the cause). And despite providing short-term benefits, this approach ultimately leads to long-term consequences.
The Problem With a Symptom-First System
Treating symptoms and being healthy aren’t synonymous. While a quick prescription or injection might make you more comfortable, it’s not always going to heal you of the underlying condition that’s producing the symptoms.
It’s like having a smart refrigerator in your kitchen that suddenly gives off a screeching alarm to warn you that something is wrong. You reach around to the back, unplug the refrigerator, and the alarm stops. You experience an initial jolt of relief, but did you really fix the problem? Next time you plug the refrigerator back in, the alarm is going to start again. And in the meantime, the temperature will increase and all of your food will eventually spoil. What you should really do is pull out the manual, look for the cause of the alarm, and fix the problem. Sure, you’ll have to deal with the alarm for a few minutes longer, but you also won’t experience any long-term consequences.
Symptom-first treatment is detrimental to public health – yet it’s become the norm in the US healthcare system. And it’s no coincidence that, despite having some of the best healthcare technology and most skilled doctors in the world, American healthcare lags far beyond other industrialized nations.
According to the most recent Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index, which ranks 169 countries based on factors that contribute to the overall health of citizens, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Singapore, Norway, and Israel are the 10 healthiest nations, respectively. The United States comes in at number 35 – surpassed by countries like Costa Rica, Chile, Estonia, Croatia, Cuba, and the Czech Republic.
There are plenty of possible explanations for why the US ranks so poorly in this study. Factors like obesity, poor diet and nutrition, chronic stress, and drug addiction all play a role. But at the center of it all is a proclivity for treating symptoms over conditions.
It’s hard to put all of the blame squarely on the shoulders of doctors and physicians. Everyone – including health educators, insurance companies, doctors, and patients – is to blame.
Consider that most insurance companies will cover the cost of a diabetic’s amputation, yet won’t fork over any coverage for nutritional counseling that could prevent the negative health effects of diabetes – including the need for an amputation.
Consider that many doctors prefer to recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, rather than run the comprehensive tests it takes to find out what’s actually causing pain. Unfortunately, medications like Tylenol, Aspirin, and Ibuprofen aren’t meant to be taken by the fistful each day. OTC pain relievers cause numerous side effects, including upset stomach, ulcers, blood thinning, and tinnitus. And for heavy drinkers, too much Tylenol intake leads to a greater risk of developing liver toxicity.
Consider that most patients would prefer to pop a pill to treat anxiety than to actually address the underlying source of their chronic stress and fears. And even though the drugs might make the patient feel better for a few months or years, this Band-Aid approach won’t last forever.
Improving the American Healthcare System
Something has to change sooner rather than later. Continuing to treat symptoms first and underlying conditions, illnesses, and diseases second is a recipe for long-term disaster – both in terms of physical and mental health.
The most logical starting point for change is the American education system. Medical schools and instructors should place an emphasis on getting to the root of the problem. Over time, this sort of focus will change the way new doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals think. Eventually, this ideology will permeate the healthcare industry and lead to lasting change.
For insurance companies, there should be a bigger focus on preventing health issues. A proactive approach to health and well-being is far more cost-effective than a reactionary approach. While it requires an investment up front, the focus on helping patients live healthy lifestyles will always be a smart financial decision.
From a patient perspective, we have to give greater weight to the building blocks of great health: balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and lower stress. Focusing on these three things significantly reduces the risk of major health issues.
Physical and mental healthcare are far more interconnected than we realize. What happens in one part of the body can easily trigger or impact what happens in another part. It’s time that we follow the lead of other industrialized nations and implement systems, procedures, and initiatives that prioritize the treatment of the whole person.