I generally enjoy Bill Maher. I mean, he seems like an ass, but I enjoy his shows—except when he talks about medicine. As any regular viewer knows, he regularly spouts the usual denialist canards about medicine. This week, he was interviewing Senator Arlen Specter, who, among other accomplishments, has survived Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of blood cancer. Maher had the bad taste to ask him is he was disgusted that health care is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Had he said this to me, I would likely have responded, “Look, asshole, the American health care system just saved my fucking life!”
This is of the more popular canards propagated by cult medicine leaders and their followers. According to the wackos, modern medical care kills and injures more people than, well, just about anything. Joe Mercola and Gary Null have very long articles on their websites bemoaning the dangers of medicine versus the safety of woo. They love to make statements like, “It is now evident that the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the US.”
What does this all mean? Should we, as the cultists suggest, abandon medicine for the cults of homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic?
Probably not. Why do I say that? Because I’m a paid shill for the Big Pharm/AMA/FDA juggernaut? Well, no. Abandoning modern medicine for the cultists doesn’t make sense, either medically or statistically.
When cultists cite their terror statistics they leave out a few important facts. There is no doubt that medical errors, and even medical therapy without errors, can harm. No one would argue otherwise. The flip side is, it also helps—a lot. For example, one of the statistics often cited from the Institute of Medicine’s landmark study on medical error is that somewhere between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths yearly in the U.S. may be due to medical errors. Now, to put that in perspective, advances in the treatment of coronary artery disease reduced the number of deaths by over 340,000 in 2000 alone. And that’s just one disease. Of course there are risks to modern medicine—it’s active treatment, not placebo, so it can be expected to hurt some people. But it helps far more. Returning to the era of roots and berries is not likely to improve quality of life or longevity. Reducing medical errors is important, and is an active field of research. The solution to medical errors isn’t voodoo, it’s science. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.