Read the other blogs in this series: Part I, Part III, Part IV
My book manuscript is entitled Dangerous and Expensive Bullshit. Let’s start by examining the question of how expensive medical bullshit really is. On a personal level, people may pay as little as $5 a month for megadoses of Vitamin C, to hundreds of dollars a month for supplements, to thousands for unproven hyperbaric oxygen treatments, to even tens of thousands of dollars for risky stem cell treatments (some stem cell centers now start at $100,000). When we start looking at this on a societal level, the expenses really add up.
Myth 1: Medical bullshit is a small percentage of medical expenses.
Truth: People in the United States spent over $30 billion for supplements and alternative treatments and $72 billion for diet treatments and products (another citation here), many of which are unproven or proven to be ineffective. Looking at mainstream medicine, an estimated 30% of America’s healthcare spending may be considered wasteful, including low-value care, poorly coordinated care, and fraud. In dollar amounts this is nearly $1 trillion dollars, or over $3,000 for every citizen per year.1
Myth 2: You get what you pay for when it comes to health.
Truth: Money spent on healthcare does not equate to better health outcomes. The US spends over $3.5 trillion on healthcare, nearly 18% of our GDP. This comes to more than $10,000 per person, nearly twice as much as other high-income countries.2 Despite this spending, the US is near the bottom of nearly every metric for health and healthcare and our life expectancy has been decreasing (even before COVID-19) despite continued increasing expenditures. Similarly, the US leads high-income countries in obesity despite also being the leader in spending for weight loss products.
Myth 3: There is a well-organized medical-industrial complex that is suppressing cures to make money.
Truth: One of the common claims of charlatans and conspiracists is that a cure for cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s already exists, but is being suppressed by the medical industry because there is more money to be made in treating a chronic condition than curing it. (Ironically, the heroic charlatan who has found “the cure” would also rather profit from it than share it freely.) There is no ritzy club where wealthy scientists hang out and discuss the diseases they’ve cured and the profits they’re making (or if there is I haven’t been invited). The reality is that physicians, scientists and industry would benefit from greater cooperation. The amazingly fast creation of COVID vaccines is an example of what’s possible when researchers, government and industry work towards a common goal. This is not to say that the lure of profits doesn’t influence healthcare, it clearly does and often not for the better, but we need to keep our sights on the real issues.
Myth 4: Medical bullshit only harms those who fall for it.
Truth: Even if medical bullshit only harmed those who directly bought into it, it would still be a huge problem. But it doesn’t – it affects everyone, and in multiple ways. We saw (and are still seeing) numerous examples of this related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When people don’t wear masks due to misinformation or disinformation, infection rates and deaths increase for everyone. People not wearing masks may be at greater risk, but other citizens, including very vulnerable individuals (e.g. elderly in nursing homes, persons receiving chemotherapy for cancer) are also now at greater risk. When mobs are incited to tear down 5G towers and threaten public health officials, guess who pays the price. When preventable infections spread3 or pandemics are drawn out due to misinformation about vaccination… well, you get the point. A healthy society depends on healthy citizens. We can look at this through a very practical lens—increased healthcare costs, heightened spread of infectious diseases, lost productivity due to preventable illness, distrust of accurate and life-saving public health information. We can also take a more spiritual view—as an interdependent being your decisions affect everyone, and the well-being and suffering of others affects you. We should attack medical bullshit as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.
1. Shrank WH, Rogstad TL, Parekh N. Waste in the US Health Care System: Estimated Costs and Potential for Savings. JAMA. 2019;322(15):1501-1509.
2. Papanicolas I, Woskie LR, Jha AK. Health Care Spending in the United States and Other High-Income Countries. JAMA. 2018;319(10):1024-1039.
3. Benecke O, DeYoung SE. Anti-Vaccine Decision-Making and Measles Resurgence in the United States. Glob Pediatr Health. 2019;6:2333794X19862949.