Rethink Health  - July 2010

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The Urge to Create

I could hardly believe my ears. Here was Nigel Edwards, policy director of the NHS Confederation, on the Today programme commenting on the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, saying (and getting away with) "the only time most people encounter health is when they get ill".

This may be the time most people first appreciate the health they enjoyed previously, but that is not what he said. I suspect he was drawing on the almost universal confusion between health and the medical services - so-called "healthcare". The presenter evidently shared this view.

Health is, very simply, the urge felt by all living things to live, which means to participate in creation. It's the spiritual glue that welds together all the cells that are you. It's your "soul". It's the reason you are kind to other people, which helps create meaning and community for you all. This makes you feel well and good, so you keep on doing it.

Health is not proof against disease, but resists it very strongly. Given self-respect, a sense of purpose, meaningful activity, good food, clean water and fresh air - and nothing to poison them or you - your health ensures that your body is fashioned perfectly, functions smoothly and maintains itself for the long haul. What's more, health maintains your appetite for and appreciation of all those essentials for its upkeep. It does not need "healthcare".

So where does medicine come in? In a well ordered society, little, late and seldom. You need it once your body has broken down and is beyond retrieval by any more homespun means. That  shameful state of affairs should never be allowed to happen. We get plenty of warning - usually decades. And most of those warnings - tiredness, boredom, thirst, hunger and the rest - are self-correcting if we choose to heed them.

It pains me to say it, but medicine is no longer a tool of health, if it ever was. It more often undermines health, an insatiable marketplace for expensive goods and services on which we are encouraged to rely.

The new government is making encouraging noises. Pronouncements so far on prisons, benefits and schools seem to be steering us away from the micromanaging state and towards more self-reliance. But we hear nothing about health - that's ring-fenced! What a lost opportunity.

All our experience in Good Healthkeeping points to net savings of at least 50% in the cost of medical services, if an inexpensive service is provided alongside them to encourage and underwrite health. This calls for more than  screening programmes, and abolishing layers of middle management. We have to stop medical professionals patronising their clients and thinking always and only of the high-tech intervention. We have to teach them what health is, and make it the object of everything they do.

Of course a healthy population will not behave like sheep. We would be more difficult to govern. We'd have to be allowed largely to govern ourselves. Perhaps today's financial imperatives are driving our politicians in the right direction - a smaller state and more social responsibility. Let's hope so!

Cancer Early Warning?

A team at the University of Nottingham, backed by an American medical company, may have taken cancer detection forward a long way. They claim to detect the germination of cancer, very much earlier than the best test can do now (i.e. about half way through the life of the tumour).

I'm not sure what practical use this will be. I suspect that many tumours get that far, for various reasons, before being destroyed by your immune system simply doing its job. So the test may prove positive often, but be reversible. I dread to think that a positive test at such an early stage might be used to justify chemotherapy - which weakens the normal immune response, making persistence of that tumour (or another) more likely. We could end up with many more people on unnecessary and harmful treatment.

All good reasons to feed your immune system, and keep it clean and fit!

Mobility Aids

Tony Benn received some free publicity last month for a prototype roll-along case with a built-in seat. He is now looking for investors.

There's no need to wait so long, however. One of you drew my attention to The Country Seat, a robust frame carrying a bag and portable seat, which is already available through e-Bay. It comes highly recommended. It's manufactured by Putnams and you can view more details at

The Department of Awful Research

Rule number one of research is - be sure you ask a sensible question. It was broken recently by a team in the USA, who will remain nameless. They tried to discover the mechanism by which acupuncture relieves pain, by sticking needles in mice. They seem not to have taken advice from a practitioner, who could not in any case have helped them much with sensible points to needle on a mouse. And they were looking for a chemical mechanism, which they claim to have found.

Acupuncture works directly on the "soul" of the creature. It matters where you put the needle. Back to the drawing board, team.

Health, which is where we came in, accounts for the benefit of both acupuncture and homoeopathy. The book is coming along, by the way, but I haven't reached that topic yet. Even when I do, I doubt whether the powers-that-be will take much notice.