“A gramme is better than a damn.” The subtle yet incredibly potent phrase is continuously remembered by the members of a seemingly utopian society in Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Brave New World’ whenever they feel unhappy. They spontaneously turn to a gramme of soma, a narcotic touted to be a medical marvel that subdues any undesirable, negative feelings and provides instant gratification. This could arguably be one of the most extreme cases of excessive faith placed upon medical science, if one were to rely on and expect drugs to control one’s feelings, the central aspect that defines a human. Over the past century, the medical industry has expanded greatly, as researchers have been making great strides in understanding the human anatomy and introducing medical inventions that serve to prolong and enhance life. Coupled with a plethora of public health measures such as control of infectious diseases, clean water and modern sanitation, the average life expectancy of humans has increased tremendously. It can therefore be concluded that medical science has delivered on its promise. The question that now rears its ugly head is whether the burgeoning field of medical science has prompted people to place an inordinate amount of trust on it, to an unrealistic and unsustainable extent. Given the endless possibilities of medical technology, it is highly likely that people would expect it to cure all ailments, or enhance certain features, which may lead to negative repercussions, posing a threat to patients, their families and the medical fraternity. That said however, there are also rare instances in which there is a lack of trust in medical science due to its unpredictable nature.
Advances in medical science have provided cures for a wide range of debilitating diseases to the point that maintaining good health is currently taken for granted by many individuals who mistakenly believe that consuming medication or undergoing treatments can substitute a healthy lifestyle. The increased frequency of lifestyle-related maladies such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and insomnia globally suggest that people could be neglecting their health intentionally, when they actually can lower the risks of getting these diseases through lifestyle changes, on the assumption that such illnesses can be kept under control through medical treatments. About half of 117 million American adults are on medication for preventable chronic diseases such as diabetes. According to research conducted by health research firm Quintile IMS, the number of prescriptions filled for Americans increased by an astronomical 85% between 1997 and 2016, from 2.4 billion to 5.4 billion a year, even as the population increased by a mere 21% during this period. Closer to home in Singapore, 10.5% of the adult population currently receive treatment for diabetes management. Unfortunately, there has been a spike in the number of people diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. The Health Promotion Board estimates that by 2050, 1 in 3 Singaporeans will develop Type 2 diabetes. This worrying trend compelled the Health Minister Gan Kim Yong to declare a ‘war’ on diabetes in 2016. It would be valid to presume in this case, that the lackadaisical attitude displayed towards the maintenance of one’s physical health could be attributed to the overconfidence that people have on the drug-saturated medical paradigm that has manifested recently.
Next, advancements in technology have enabled us to move beyond solely curing the human body to modifying it to suit one’s needs. This is the undesirable consequence of the publics’ disproportionate amount of trust in medical science and its ability to satisfy their gripes about their health and wellness. What started out as a simple procedure to correct a broken nose or a cleft lip has given rise to a multitude of unnecessary treatments and procedures ranging from skin tightening to face-lifts. The constant dissatisfaction with the current, less invasive procedures offered by medical technology and the insatiable desire for more innovative, unconventional methods to further enhance the body has fuelled the rapidly evolving cosmetic industry. The blind faith that people place in such risky procedures has also resulted in sky-rocketing costs associated with cosmetic procedures. Dr Doug Steinbrech, a New York specialist performs a new facelift at a cost of an eye-watching $35,000. Similarly, re-sculpting of the face using ultrasound and lasers costs an astonishing $11,000. Despite the hefty price tag attached to these treatments, many willingly opt for them, naively thinking that their imperfections can be corrected. Research conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons suggest that Americans underwent close to 17.1 million cosmetic procedures in 2017 alone. Across the Pacific Ocean, the plastic surgery industry is booming, with more than 22 million undergoing cosmetic surgery in 2017. The warm reception towards such treatments have spurred specialists to push the boundaries of medical science further, out of the naive belief that it could completely change one’s looks. This confidence would later result in the controversial first ever face transplant performed by a French doctor, Dr Dubernard in 2005. In a world that already places crushing, asphyxiating standards on beauty, the risky and unpredictable consequences associated with cosmetics surgeries that people regularly gamble on only serve to prove that medical science is unrealistically viewed as a panacea to all problems.
Apart from the possible obsession with cosmetic surgeries, a surfeit of conviction in untested ‘cutting-edge’ research opens up the possibility for such research to be abused and exploited. Research done in stem-cell therapy, cloning, and organ transplants are experimental at best. The results have been inconsistent, and these procedures have not been widely accepted by the medical community. As a result, expecting such genetic engineering processes to improve one’s quality of life is quixotic. Nevertheless, as scientists continue to dabble with research of questionable nature, hoping to make a ground-breaking discovery, there is a possibility that ethics and morality will be sacrificed. With the technology to precisely and accurately edit human genetic sequences within reach, designing humans are no longer just a science fiction fantasy. The arrival of CRISPR technology, though still in its nascent stage, has the potential to excise undesirable genes and insert favourable ones into gametes and embryos in a process called germ line engineering, allowing couples to select traits they wish their child to have and potentially turning the concept of designer babies into a frightening reality. Given that the eugenics movement, which essentially proclaimed that all were created equal, but some were more equal than others, had entered the mainstream consciousness as recently as the 19thand 20thcentury, research along these lines might be exploited by the most radical amongst us. Furthermore, the concept is also offensive to many religious groups who believe that it is wrong to ‘play God’ by effectively creating and changing life, as well as opposing the law of nature. It can be evinced clearly that the sheer magnitude in terms of expectations placed on biotechnology, could easily raise ethical and moral concerns, especially if it threatens the very essence of human life.
Proponents of medical science would however argue otherwise, stating that faith placed upon medicine and health research is certainly not misplaced, given that it has brought about innumerable benefits to humanity. Its merits span from the early diagnosis and management of life threatening diseases, to the eradication of pandemics that once plagued the world. Admittedly, the positive impact of medical science has been long lasting, which may coax people into accepting it wholeheartedly. Medical science has successfully identified the causes of infectious diseases and destroyed the carriers of such bacteria and viruses. Dedicated research and experimentation have given rise to vaccines and antibiotics to combat such maladies. This was well-demonstrated in the cases of polio and smallpox, where in collaboration with the World Health Organization, medical resources were able to reduce the prevalence of such diseases. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative reduced the number of cases of polio by 99% and more than 2 billion children have been immunized. The negative effects of smallpox were also short-lived as it was officially eradicated in 1980. It has been estimated that at least 20 million people would have died of smallpox had it not been eradicated. People may also pin their hopes on pharmacogenomic research and the concept of personalized medicine, which is administered with the understanding that individuals may have different responses to drugs due to different genes. Medco Health Solutions, one of America’s largest pharmacy benefit managers until it was acquired by Express Solutions in 2011, was leading the way in making the provision of personal genomics services to the masses a reality. It had already achieved successes with personalized treatment of Warfarin, a widely used blood thinner to prevent clots, and Tamoxifen for breast cancer. Essentially, matching the right drugs to the patients not only has obvious clinical benefits, but also makes good economic sense. By reducing the occurrence of misdiagnosis, long hospitalization periods and the need for follow up treatment, personalized healthcare can generate significant cost savings. All of these will ultimately allow patients to direct their own care to some extent, empowering them with a greater sense of freedom and self-reliance, truly heralding a breakthrough in medical science. Advances in personalised medicine would also allow for the treatment of rare disorders and allow the industry to track the development of diseases. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the National Healthcare System is collaborating with academia and industry to analyse the genetic material of persons with rare disorders through the 100,000 Genomes Project. It is hoped that such information will shed light on and save lives from disorders which were previously unknown. Indubitably, the public validation of medical science especially in keeping infectious diseases at bay and enhancing their health by providing personalized medicine is indeed justifiable and in no way a gross exaggeration of our gargantuan trust on medical science.
In sum, medical science remains essential and indispensable due to the benefits it has on the well-being of Man. As this branch of science continues to expand, evolve and develop, it is inevitable that mankind would place much of their hopes and utmost faith in it to provide them with enhanced longevity. However, past and present experiences have revealed that this may not necessarily be a wise decision, as it poses risks that may be catastrophic if not cured in time. It is imperative that ethical restrictions be present to act as a moral compass and ensure that our desires and trust do not tip the scale, lest we might find ourselves being reduced to soulless beings, stripped of our mental faculties and perhaps, depending on soma, in the near future.