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Ivan Oransky on the Disease Model at TEDMED 2012

April 15th, 2012 by Dirk Hanson

What we think about when we think about disease.

Its a safe bet that the number of M.D.s who have made a mid-career switch to journalism is rather small. And when Dr. Ivan Oransky did it, he didnt go in for half measures. The former online editor of Scientific American, and the former deputy editor of The Scientist, Oransky now serves as Executive Editor of Reuters Health. He teaches medical journalism at New York University, where he also holds an appointment as clinical assistant professor of medicinewhile maintaining three, yes three, separate blogs. He is well known for two innovative blogs known as Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch. And he recently kicked off a personal blog, the Oransky Journal.

So clearly, hes a very lazy man. Nonetheless, he found time to give a very popular talk on the shortcomings of the disease model of medicine at last weeks TEDMED conference in Washington, D.C. And he found additional time to grant me an interview afterwards, with some interesting thoughts on how the mania for medicalization could affect addiction treatment.

Speaking at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Oransky compared patients in the nations current medical system to baseball coach Billy Beane, a once-promising player who washed out in the minors and was recently portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball. Our medical system is just as bad at predicting whats happening to patients as baseball scouts were at predicting what would happen to Billy Beane, Oransky told the audience of 1,500.

Every day, thousands of people across the country are diagnosed with pre-conditions, he said. We hear about pre-hypertension, we hear about pre-dementia and pre-anxiety. We also refer to sub-clinical conditions, like sub-clinical hardening of the arteries. One of my favorites is called sub-clinical acne. If you look up their website as I did, youll see that they say this is the easiest acne to treat. You dont have any pustules or inflammationyou dont actually have acne.  I have a name for preconditionsI call them preposterous.

Every year, according to Oransky, we are spending more than three trillion dollars on health care, and yet 100,000 people a year are dying not from preconditions they have, but because of treatments that were given them, and complications they received. And most patient advocacy groups eventually learn to expand the number of people who are eligible for a given treatment for fundraising purposes, he said.

As evidence of this trend toward medicalization, Oransky pointed to the novel notion of a previvor. According to FORCE, the cancer research advocacy group that coined the term: "A previvor is a survivor of a predisposition to cancer. The term is used to describe someone who, for example, has a genetic risk for breast cancer, but has not been diagnosed with the disease. Previvor was coined in 2000 after a challenge from a community member who said she needed a label, according to the groups web site.

We are all previvors of some disorder, Oransky argues. In the spirit of giving everyone a precondition, Oransky coined the term pre-death. What is pre-death? Every single one of you has it, Oransky told the audience, because you have the risk factor for it, which is being alive."

Using his favorite metaphorbaseballOransky explained the secret of Billy Beanes revolutionary success as a coach: The secret wasnt to swing at every pitch, like the sluggers do. You had to find the guys who liked to walk, because getting on base by a walk is just as good. And in our health care system, we need to figure out, is that really a good pitch, or do we need to let it go by, and not swing at everything? We all need to keep in mind that in medicine, sometimes less is more.

After his talk, I asked Oransky how the theme of medicalization might apply to the disease of addiction. Medicalization, he said, is a matter of taking advantage of people, manipulating them so they cant make informed decisions. In the case of addiction treatment, Oransky pointed to the proliferation of ads for treatment in beautiful places. Its all selling and self-diagnosis. Theyre selling you on the fact that you need to be treated. He also pointedly referred to the practice of medical astro-turfing, where a supposedly grass roots effort by patients or advocates is usurped by interest group pressure. Sometimes that usurpation is patently obvious, is in the case of many advocacy groups set in motion and funded by pharmaceutical companies or the liquor industry.

Sometimes, of course, you do need to be treated. And Oransky notes that in health areas such as addiction and mental illnessdisorders where social stigma remains high, compared to, say, a blood infectionthere are fewer pressures to medicalize. And possibly, too few pressures to medicalize. Theres no quick and easy test, no MRI where you can point to the place in the brain that lights up and say, you are an alcoholic. The science of addiction, which has been moving by fits and starts into the medical mainstream, has a long way to go, compared with many other disease categories. And it has left a gap through which medical workers and treatment staff can march, chanting, I have a system, Oransky says.

Perhaps, then, the study of addiction to alcohol and other drugs requires both more medicalization of the research kind, and less of the precondition or sub-clinical kind. As for the second kind, Oransky believes we are already medicalizing binge drinking in a counterproductive way. In addition, there are always attempts to widen the market. Look at how obesity has been made to overlap with addiction. As for medications being used to combat craving among addicts in treatment, Oransky noted the tendency to repurpose drugs on the basis of soft data. They took wellbutrin, an antidepressant that didnt work very well, and offered it for smoking cessation. So I would want to see data that is really robust before treating addicts with such medications.

On the other hand, Oransky noted, We dont have to worry about malaria, we dont need to medicalize tuberculosis. But do diseases that have a strong stigma, like addiction, actually benefit from medicalization?  If we find out that they do, than we should do it.

Theres something else Oransky believes is overdue for true medicalization: The social determinants of health carepoverty, the way we build our suburban environments. Concentrate on stuff that we know kills people. Medicalize that.

In the end, he said, we need to use marketing strategies to effectively get treatment to the people who need it, not to the people who dont.
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