The Nation's Health + power

Heart disease: Digging for the truth

I remain continually amazed how difficult it can be to gain an understanding of what is true and what is not true. I am particularly worried about the messages provided by agencies that stand to make enormous gains by persuading us to believe their version of the "truth".

For a moment, let's strip away the charitable covers of some financially-motivated organizations and see what they really look like:

Hospitals: The dream of hospitals is to shift the proportion of patients towards those with the most profitable diseases in well-insured patients. Heart disease is among the best paying diseases. HOSPITALS WANT YOU TO HAVE HEART DISEASE.

Doctors: Many (though not all) want to deal with diseases that pay well. Implanting a stent can pay several thousand dollars. Putting in a defibrillator can likewise pay handsomely, even better than stents. DOCTORS WANT TO STEER YOU TOWARDS PROCEDURES THAT REIMBURSE GENEROUSLY. Talk is cheap and pays poorly. Heart scans? Useless, since they're cheap. CT angiography? Now we're talking! $1800 dollars is a lot more interesting than $200 or so for a simple heart scan. CT angiograms also lead to catheterization, stents, hospitalizations.

Drug manufacturers: The holy grail for drug manufacturers is a chronic condition that is present in large numbers of people. An antibiotic, for instance, is a drug manufacturers waste of time: Short courses of treatment in relatively few people. Cholesterol drugs, blood pressure drugs, drugs to modify personality or some aspect of behavior--these you take for years, decades, or a lifetime, and millions are persuaded they need them. DRUG COMPANIES WANT CHRONIC CONDITIONS (WHETHER OR NOT THEY'RE DISEASES) IN PEOPLE WHO SURVIVE FOR A LONG TIME, NOT SICK PEOPLE.

Supplement manufacturers: What don't we need in the eyes of sellers of nutritional supplement? While a program like Track Your Plaque makes liberal use of supplements in a focused and, I believe, rational way, supplement sellers want you to take dozens or preparations of dubious value: milk thistle, hawthorne, ribose, hoodia, silymarin, hydroxycitric acid . . . Unlike the larger ambitions and bigger money of the pharmaceutical industry, the supplement industry is often driven by the momentary craze and the quick payoff. THE SUPPLEMENT INDUSTRY IS LOOKING FOR SUCKERS.

Food manufacturers: The holy grail for the food industry are foods that have high markups, are convenient (e.g., eaten right out of the box or package), and are purchased repeatedly. Even better, if a health claim can be added, it can ride the current wave of the public's health consciousness. Thus, Cocoa Puffs can be labeled "Heart Healthy". How about foods that have addictive potential and virtually ensure repeat sales? Eat some and you want more within 2-4 hours! As nutritionist Marion Nestle says, the mantra of the foods industry is "Eat More". It is my firm conviction that the epidemic of obesity in the U.S. is not due to laziness, video games, and computers. It is the fault of food manufacturers. FOOD MANUFACTURERS WANT US FAT AND HUNGRY AND WANT US TO STAY THAT WAY. What pays better, a 110 lb vegetarian woman who shops at the farmer's market and buys locally produced foods, or the 260 lb glutenous and always-hungry woman who fills her supermarket shopping cart with 15 cents worth of flour and sugar priced at $4.59 (cleverly disguised as a healthy breakfast cereal), instant mixes, convenient meals, energy bars, and chips?

Government agencies: User fees for the FDA paid by drug companies have caused the FDA to be beholden to drug company pressures. The USDA, charged with crafting the food pyramid, was created to support the farm industry and distributors of their products, not to disseminate public health. The food pyramid is the watered down end result of food industry lobbying and threats, not the scientific advice of nutritionists. GOVERNMENT AGENCIES SERVE INDUSTRY FIRST, THE PUBLIC SECOND.

Health websites: Read popular websites like WebMD for information and the conversation quickly steers towards drugs. "Natural treatments for cholesterol" talks about reducing saturated fat and then gushes about the wonders of statin drugs. Guess where 80% of WebMD's revenues come from? Yup, the drug industry. The same goes for many magazines, TV shows, and other media. MEDIA IS OFTEN THE TOOL OF BIG INDUSTRY.

I'm sounding like a conspiracy theorist. I don't believe that I am, but I am skeptical of the messages we often receive from the media, advertisements, news reports, websites, etc. It's left to you and me to use our judgment and decide what is truth and what is someone's version of a message crafted towards their hidden agenda.

I am hoping that the real truth will grow through a wiki-like phenomena driven and supervised by a collective knowledge that we all contribute towards. That will happen, most likely, on the internet. Just as Wikipedia overtook the revered Encylopedia Britannica in the blink of an eye at far less cost yet with greater depth and equivalent accuracy, so will it happen in health information. I'm uncertain of the eventual form this health-wiki will take, but it will shatter many smug and deeply-entrenched powers that at present continue to profit from mis-information.

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