Theater of Cruelty

Why did I get sick?

Individual medicine and the alternative medical traditions seem to fill a need that the public health service does not meet: to give answers to individuals about causes.


A risk factor is something else and more abstract than a cause. In medicine, there is a lot of talk about risk factors, but not so much about causes: Why does a person develop cancer, for example? This question is almost unheard of in medicine. To try to answer the is considered a form of hybris, it is provocative. As a rule, it is claimed that cancer strikes randomly. That is, when risk factors have been taken into account. For example, among twenty large smokers, only one lung cancer develops. If you add other risk factors such as gender, age, genetics and working conditions, you can define a group of ten where everyone is at high risk of getting lung cancer. But only one of them gets sick. Which of them will be considered random – or bad luck, if you will.

Not everyone agrees with this notion of coincidence. In alternative medicine, bombastic claims about specific causes of illness abound. No matter how unrealistic these probable causes are, they seem to feel a need to hang the disease on something more concrete than risk. Many patients also have perceptions of specific life events that caused them to develop disease. It may be losing a child, having pushed themselves too hard for a long time, or – apparently paradoxically – having met the great love. However, few doctors will attach much importance to these events as the cause of the disease. But if the topic is a disease in the literature, such topics can be given space, for example in the medical study.

Individual medicine

Another group that does not immediately settle for disease strikes is the major players in information technology and social media. In 2008, Google launched Google Health, a kind of Facebook for health information, where participants could upload all imaginable information they had about blood test responses, genetics, medications they use, life habits and so on. Google could then chase this information along with other information they are on, so-called big data. Google Health was free, and the purpose was for the system to provide the consumer with more precise health advice that was specific to him or her. The project, on the other hand, was not a great success and was put down in 2011. But perhaps the idea was good, purely market-based. Both IBM and Microsoft have similar systems that are still operational, respectively Watson Health and HealthVault.

The scientific evidence for the medical benefit of these surveillance systems is
as of today, however, hardly stronger than for homeopathy or acupuncture.

These information technology projects from Google, Microsoft and IBM, respectively, are associated with the movement called "individual medicine" – a hybrid movement that holds both forces that will democratize medical knowledge and commercial companies that are interested in summarizing the most sensitive information about individual individuals. The movement also incorporates to a large extent simultaneous and future technology for monitoring the physiology of individuals, such as heart rate sensors and biochemical microsensors operating into the subcutaneous tissue. The use of Apple Watch may be considered a step on the road here. It measures, among other things, heart rate variability, probably the single biomarker that says most about a person's health.

However, the scientific evidence for the medical benefit of these surveillance systems is not currently much stronger than for homeopathy or acupuncture. And in sets and shows, individual medicine is a more staunch competitor to the alternative medical traditions. Both movements seem to fill a need that the public health service fails to provide: answers to individuals about causes, not just groups of risk.
Næss is a doctor and philosopher. Regular commentator in Ny Tid.

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