glenn ellis

Glenn Ellis

*I recently came across the news that, “…officials in the Obama Administration launched a landmark national strategy to fight Alzheimer’s”.

Now many you would think this is great news, and some levels, it is. Nothing is more painful than to see a parent, or loved one, suffer and decline from this sinister thief.

If you’ve never experienced it, take my word…it isn’t a pretty sight.

After all, Alzheimer’s has reeked havoc and torn apart the lives of thousands, if not millions, of families in recent years. An estimated 5.4 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease in 2012.

Broken down further, this means that:

  • One in eight people age 65 and older (13 percent) has Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Nearly half of people age 85 and older (45 percent) have Alzheimer’s disease.
  • 4% of people under the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s.

I thought for a moment, and quickly realized that nowhere in the announcement was there any interest or attention to trying to explore the issue of why Alzheimer’s was such a growing issue.

It is clear that right before our eyes, the practice of medicine in this country, and in many parts of the Western world, is permanently fixated on medical research as an indispensible tool for delivering healthcare. No longer is it an “arm” of medicine…it has become the “heart”.

According to The Journal of the American Medical Association total U.S. spending on medical research has doubled in the past decade to nearly $95 billion a year, though whether the money is being well spent needs much better scrutiny.

Over the past decade, Pharmaceutical industry sponsors 57 percent of medical research and the National Institutes of Health pays for 28 percent.

And the big beneficiary? Big Pharma!

The AMA also found that the United States spends about six cents of every health care dollar on medical research. But the nation spends only one-tenth of a cent of every dollar on longer-term evaluation of which drugs and treatments work best at the lowest cost.

We, as a nation, aren’t even paying attention to WHAT the medical research industry is spending all of this money on!

      In a column on the Huffington Post, Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF, states it brilliantly:

The politics of illness are complex. Certain diseases have large communities of support, celebrity spokespeople and ample funding. Of course, it is understandable that some illnesses, especially more common diseases, would attract more advocacy and research dollars (which come from both public and private resources). But mortality rates of illness don’t quite match up with the amount of money spent on people with specific illnesses. For example, consider the amount of federal funds spent per person for the top cancer diseases. Statistics provided by the National Cancer Institute Financial Management Branch and the American Cancer Society report that in 2008 an average of $1,249 was spent per lung cancer patient death, $6,590 for colon cancer, $14,336 for prostrate cancer and a staggering $27,480 for patients who died of breast cancer. While the lowest amount of money spent per person is for lung cancer, this disease has the highest incidence and mortality rate; the next highest mortality rates were for colorectal and then breast cancer. Of note, tobacco settlement money is not being spent on lung cancer research; rather, 46 states have used this money to balance their budgets and in 2004, three percent of tobacco settlement money was spent on tobacco prevention. As breast cancer is distressingly common, it may be understandable that victims of this disease have access to more resources and more financial support. However, these statistics raise some important questions. Namely, who decides how much money goes to federal research for specific diseases? It turns out that this question is not very easy to answer.

So back to me being disturbed…

For some ungodly reason, our medical research industry has totally abandoned efforts to keep people healthy! It’s like Michael Moore states, “ we don’t have a Healthcare industry we have a Sickcare industry”.

There is a Medical Oath that doctors accept when they begin their practice. Their mission is to do their best to improve human health and avoid harm. The sections included are  ” to avoid deliberate harm to anyone for anyone else’s interest and to avoid violating morals of the community.” The phrases in the Oath are intended to regulate the practitioner’s conduct of service. They should conduct their profession only with good and humanitarian intent.

Yet, it is rare for a doctor to actually “touch” a patient during a routine office visit. Many of them are fixated on entering data in a laptop, or reviewing data form a report form a lab, or imaging center.

Sure, these are useful tools, but there is a complete set of tools in the true practice of the “ Art of Medicine”.

And to add insult to injury, it seems that most of the time, research money is spent to develop drugs which deal with Erectile Dysfunction (ED); or to address an overeating, gluttonous population (Nexium); or Restless leg Syndrome (which of those who claim to have it, less than 3% say it happens daily);  even or my “favorite”, Mucinex. You know the one that is supposed to help remove mucus? Never mind that most of us have congestion because we don’t drink enough water! But, one of the stated, possible side effects is that it may impair your thinking or reactions!!!

All this is happening while we live in a country, and a world, where asthma, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, are limiting the lives of millions of men, women, and children. All of these are conditions that can generally be prevented and/or treated with proper diet, lifestyle, and health education.

How much of our country’s research dollars are directed to this?

And then there are the underfunded diseases, which can be virtually eliminated with a concerted effort by the medical research community.

Millions of people are still suffering and dying each year from diseases that disproportionately affect poor populations. About half of the world’s population lives in areas at risk for malaria. Although Malaria is extremely rare in the United States, the Anopheles mosquito is found in the western and southeastern part of the country. Yet, in 2007, annual funding for malaria control, including insecticide spraying, use of insecticide-treated bed nets and access to rapid diagnosis and medicine was $1billion, less than a dollar per person at risk of the disease.

Coming closer to home, Sickle cell disease is the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States, affecting 70,000 to 80,000 Americans. In the United States, there are more than 80,000 people affected, and it affects 1 in 400 blacks and 1 in 19000 Latinos and has a carrier rate of 1 in 12 and 1 in 100 for black and Latino populations, respectively.

It is worth noting that NIH allocates almost 4 times more funding per person affected with cystic fibrosis as it does for those affected by Sickle cell disease. These levels of funding have been essentially stable for many years.

I am absolutely NOT against clinical trials, and medical research. Nor, do I regret any life made better, or made whole due to the successes. Many people are reading this column due in large part to the advancements and breakthroughs made possible by medical research.

But when we reach the point (as we have now) where the practice and delivery of medicine relies, and in many cases centers, on cures and treatments, and not balanced with adequate resources for education and prevention…That’s’ a problem.

And this problem is complicated by the disproportionate degree to which research dollars are spent on a consumer/patient population “conditioned” to expect a pill for “everything that ails them”.

It has been said that with only 5% of the entire world’s population, the United States consumes over 56% of the total supply of prescription medicines.

There are many advantages to preventive health care. It is inexpensive and painless, can help you lead a longer and more productive life, and gives you control over your own well-being. No one wants to get sick or hurt and be subjected to costly and sometimes uncomfortable medical tests, examinations, and procedures.

It’s time we let our legislators know WHERE we want our research dollars to go…

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis,  is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.

His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, was released in January, 2012.

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