Content editor, Joanna Lowy, comments on all things health-related, and gives you a sneaky peek into her news-based medical musings of the week. Sometimes controversial, other times humorous, always straight from the heart; here you get to know the girl behind the facts! Enjoy! Comments welcome and invited!
Like many, I’m sure, I’ve been quite disgusted at the level of intrusion the Duchess of Cambridge has had to endure since being forced to announce her pregnancy this week. Every woman who brings a new life into this world should be afforded, at the very minimum, the luxury of having three months before letting her friends and family know that she’s expecting, let alone the entire world. A wedding is one thing, but the unpredictable, uncontrollable, extremely sensitive nature of managing to carry full-term without any problems really should be left where it belongs – in the mother’s womb. Even if that mother is the future Queen of England.
And so, the shameful prank courtesy of one Australian radio station yesterday understandably caught the attention of the entire world.
I could happily continue on this fashion, slamming not only such a disgraceful action but the continued obsession and intrusion into the #royalbaby, which isn’t even a baby and won’t be for another six months.
But yesterday’s prank actually highlighted a more serious issue.
King Edward VII hospital, the leading private hospital and the long-standing, go-to place for the Royals, should, quite frankly, be ashamed of itself. For anyone who's listened to the 4.26 clip will know that the light-hearted duo boasted the most appalling, supposedly posh English accents, referred to “my granddaughter Kate’s ‘little tummy bug’”, had a third person barking in the background and spoke about walking the corgis. In short, they used every possible stereotype they could use. And both the receptionist and the nurse fell for it.
And fell for it hard. Giving basic details of her condition and answering questions about visiting hours – you couldn’t make it up.
It actually came at a rather significant time, clashing with yesterday’s Autumn Statement and the Prime Minister’s Question Time which preceded it. Cameron was left red-faced after his maintained claims that NHS spending is going up was challenged by Ed Miliband, claiming this did not represent reality as spending is actually lower than it was in 2010.
The situation, in my opinion, is further compounded when we look to the private hospital at the centre of the scandal. For the NHS need nothing less than an excuse for why they’re not actually doing too badly, after all. “But that private hospital, with all the money in the world, still screwed up royally. You wouldn’t catch us falling for a prank like that.”
It may be easy to view yesterday’s controversy through the rose-tinted glasses of the NHS, arguing that money be may not be the hard-and-fast solution so many claim it to be. But if this is to teach us anything, other than the common decency to leave a pregnant woman alone, it should warn us against becoming as complacent as London’s leading private hospital obviously has become.
Last week saw the release of an online calculator which supposedly predicts a baby’s probability of becoming obese during childhood.
Using data such as birth weight, number of household members and parental BMI, the tool which has been developed by researchers at Imperial College London has been hailed as some sort of preventative measure to getting fat.
And so, obesity, apparently, will come down to the six questions which comprise the two-minute questionnaire.
Call me a cynic, but there is one question they failed to take into account: ‘What effect will the results of your prediction have on your relationship to food?’
In a scenario reminiscent of the chicken and egg, you see, the researchers have clearly forgotten that any sort of prediction is likely, in fact, to impact on the said outcome.
Because let’s be honest - even if the results of the online calculator were accurate, what are the implications of supposedly ‘knowing one’s fate’? What effect would this have on the poor babe-in-arms who has merely cried out for milk?
Those who are deemed to have a high-risk of becoming obese, because of things like how rich their parents are and how many siblings they have - things that, one may argue, are completely out of their control – are fated to have an overbearing, miserable childhood with no chocolate. Because no parent is going to stand by and allow their child to fulfil their less-than-desirable fate, if they can help it. Any innocence and implicit compliance which accompanies a baby on entering this world will pass the second that baby learns the word ‘why’. And God help that poor baby who one day becomes an insecure teenage girl, perhaps with an eating disorder, who need not even ask if she looks fat because she’s been programmed to know that yes, she is more likely to be obese than her best friend at school.
And what about her best friend at school, who received the miraculous news on the day of her birth that she is not likely to become obese? She’s been laughing all the way to the Sauvignon Blanc – that is, until her relaxed attitude to food because she is deemed to remain slim for all her days catches up with her and – shock horror – she’s suddenly overweight.
I get that there is an obesity epidemic which is witnessing more and more people reach an unhealthy weight and of course it is important that we tackle this. But surely it’s a better idea to proactively target everyone with healthy eating and lifestyle as opposed to reacting to a prediction based on nothing more than a two-minute questionnaire.
It’s funny how things often recur once you’ve noticed them. Just this morning I was discussing with a colleague the appropriateness of naming a feature section ‘Lifestyle’. After all, she argued, what does lifestyle really mean?
And, I conceded, she had a point. It is a bit of a vague definition.
You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when this very issue arose a couple of hours later. On reading reports and reader’s comments that conservative MP and practising GP, Dr Phillip Lee, has suggested that lifestyle patients make a contribution to their healthcare costs, it seems that no one is quite sure how this would work.
Where to draw the line? AIDS patients made to pay if they caught the infection 'in a bad way'? Anorexic people paying for treatment because it's their own fault? Ridiculous idea
Indeed - almost anything can be cast as a "lifestyle choice"
Anything, one may argue, apart from for the year in which you are born.
Except Dr Lee and, it would seem, a large section of the public, apparently view the baby boomers born post World War Two and who now age between 50 and 60 guilty as charged, as they act as a source of constant pressure on the NHS, defined as less ‘stoic’ than the wartime generation that preceded them.
Apparently, baby boomers (who, by the way, also started the recession because they dared live in happier economic times) selfishly expect more of the NHS. I mean, how dare they reap the benefits of a service which is clearly more advanced than it was when they were younger? You wouldn’t catch younger generations expecting too much of anything (unless it was to do with technology or instant gratification, of course).
Let me reiterate: these baby boomers that dare use the services of the NHS are aged between 50 and 60. Whilst they are by no means old, they are entering the stage of life where things may well not work as efficiently as they used to. Are we really so bitter that they lived in easier economic times than we currently do to resent them going to the doctor? Of course they are going to need healthcare services more than a 20-year-old. It’s not rocket science.
Unless, of course, that 20-year old is a chain-smoking, drug-taking, junk-food consumer.
I am by no means blindly supporting the somewhat vague proposal to charge ‘lifestyle patients’ for their treatments. It is a complex suggestion that would be begging for victims to fall in its flaws. It may quite simply be impossible to define what is, and is not, the result of a lifestyle choice.
But one thing’s for sure. The year in which one is born, no matter how you look at it, is most certainly not one.
We’re used to seeing it every day, usually in the Daily Mail. In fact, courtesy of Dan & Dan, there’s even a song about how everything gives you cancer, according to said paper.
However, if the boy-crying-wolf mentality has made us somewhat blasé about the latest thing the Mail claims to cause cancer, the headline appearing in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Smacking children may increase risk of them developing cancer” has served to pique our attention once again.
And so, as a self-confessed sceptic of the ‘Cancer Causes Chronicles’, even I must admit that seeing it in a paper other than the Mail may have finally given it some substance.
Further, on closer analysis, the situation may even be bleaker than is initially suggested.
According to the story, psychologists asked adults with cancer if they had been verbally or physically abused as children, and found that they were more likely to say yes than healthy adults – a whopping 70% more likely.
It was subsequently suggested that inducing trauma in a child’s early years may lead to the biological changes which predispose the disease.
But if you’re sitting there thinking how wonderful this is, because clearly this implies an easy and free cure for the raging disease which has, and continues to kill millions of people each year, think again.
In the wise words of my father, ‘your schooldays are the best days of your life’. He was, of course referring to the cocoon nature of the system which occupies the bulk of the day by educating its pupils surrounded by friends. Children are not even aware of, let alone concerned about, bills, pills, Mils or Fils.
Yet speaking as the adult version of a happy yet smacked and shouted at child, I can assure you that parental discipline was the least of my worries.
Homework, scary teachers with bad breath, SATs, CATs, GCSEs and A-levels, boyfriends, will-we-won’t-we, does-he-like-me, cliques, freaks and should-I-eat’s. Need I go on?
And that was all before secondary school even finished.
I have always, therefore, argued that although trivial to adults, the worries that keep children up at night are relatively equal in nature to the more complex issues which are awaiting them as they get older. The stress levels hit the same point and the trauma is just as, if not more raw. And that’s without the bills, pills, Mils and Fils that are just around the corner.
So it leaves us with very little choice, at the end of the day. Life itself obviously causes cancer. We are sentenced to death the moment we are born. Everything else, therefore, whether it be cigarettes, alcohol, mobile phones, or, indeed, smacking your children, really pales in significance in the fight against the disease that we are anyway doomed to lose.
As my husband and I sat down to watch Downton Abbey a couple weeks ago for that episode, we sensed almost immediately what was going to happen. And as the two doctors argued incessantly over the fate of Lady Sybil, a short conversation between us ensued. He lamented the fact that, in those times, doctors were not much trusted and did not have the superior knowledge they have today. I, on the other hand, suggested that when it comes to trust and mis-diagnosis, things are not all that different.
In hindsight, we were both wrong – the true picture lying somewhere in the middle. For yes, medical care in those times doesn’t hold a torch to the vast services we have today. And, true, things are still far from perfect – with horrific stories in the news daily about cases of mis-diagnosis which lead to fatalities. However, as is usual with what is often deemed media worthy, the everyday positive actions conducted by our NHS staff barely get a look in at the expense of infrequent human error.
Of course, another major difference between now and then lies in the vast knowledge available to patients themselves. Recalling Carson’s reaction to the telephone, that’s probably a good thing!
In our internet-frenzied world, however, we can achieve almost anything at the touch of a button. We can be photographers, academics, bankers and yes, you’ve guessed it, even doctors!
According to a survey conducted by Yougov, 30% of people registered with a GP search on the web first to check out their medical symptoms – citing reasons such as feeling their GP is too pressed for time to undertake a full consultation and may misdiagnose them.
Ever since Dr Google reared his ugly head, there seemed to be a unanimous response: do not trust him as your doctor. Up until recently, that is.
For a new tool called the Isabel Symptom Checker, which was launched last week, seems to have challenged all that came before. The free application has been around since 2002, initially meant to support healthcare professionals. Twelve years later, and it is finally ‘patient-friendly’ too.
This is not to criticise the somewhat impressive tool; I’ve had a little play around on the site, and as self-diagnosis tools go, it seems to be the best of the bunch. However, the fact remains that not only should the need for this never have arrived, but that it still pales in comparison to a real, face-to-face meeting with your doctor.
The idea behind it is to do a little bit of homework before you visit your GP. And so, within seconds of typing in your symptoms to the search bar, a list of possible diagnoses appears.
Healthcare professionals are raving about it, and are also, if news reports are to be believed, encouraging patients to come having done research. “I welcome the fact that the Isabel Symptom Checker tool will be available to patients – I think it is necessary for GPs to work in partnership with the patient these days and have a shared agenda”, said Dr David Hayward, GP and board member of the Vale of York Clinical Commissioning Group. “Isabel could help make the consultation more productive by having a better informed patient who has got involved with researching their symptoms and possible diagnosis. This is especially true in more complex presentations even if the outcome is reassurance for the patient.” Clearly Dr Hayward has never used Dr Google, for if he had, he would perhaps realise that listing a huge range of potential illnesses to an already panicked person is anything but reassuring.
It is perhaps not surprising that in the wake of budget cuts and GP commissioning, they might welcome anything which might lessen their workload.
The problem is, it is not going to work.
Forgetting the fact that we medically-challenged plebs are simply unqualified and unable to deal with our own potential diagnoses, it also seems to be wholly pointless if, as Isabel Healthcare have revealed, doctors have been using the same tool for 10 years. For if they’re using this and still making errors, what chance do we have? A somewhat cynical view might suggest that this is nothing more than a pacifier; an attempt at safety in numbers to ease a doctor’s responsibility.
The Isabel Symptom Checker was set up by a father who nearly lost his daughter to a potentially fatal mis-diagnosis. It is not for him, nor any member of the public, to assist healthcare professionals, least because it is just not something we are qualified for.
Call me old fashioned, but I still hold the doctor’s opinion in far higher esteem than my own.
I have enough friends who are doctors to be familiar with the gruelling process they must complete to qualify. Quite frankly, I am not sure what else they could do. The increase in medical errors must, I am sure, come down to the fractured state the NHS is currently in.
But then something, anything, other than requiring or encouraging a patient to assist their GP must be done. No matter what state the NHS is in, no patient should ever feel that they need to do their own homework before visiting the doctor.
Lest we forget what happened to poor Lady Sybil when Lord Grantham thought he knew best.