EMBL Forum Lectures
The Tyranny of Health
Tuesday, 10 February 2009, 16:00, Large Operon
Michael Fitzpatrick, Medical doctor and writer
The quest for health is making people ill. Health is no longer a default status, but an ideal state that can only be attained through the evasion of risks and the pursuit of virtuous behaviours. This reflects the shift in the locus of disease from the body to society, from pathological cells to deviant lifestyles. If the modernist self was outward looking and optimistic, the post-modernist self is depressed and preoccupied with the body.
Making health the goal of human endeavour fosters two forms of ill-health, creating distress and disability on a growing scale. The 'worried well' are people whose lives are subordinated to the quest for health, by pursuing diets, exercise regimes, taking vitamins and supplements, seeking check-ups and screening tests. The 'worried sick' are those whose existential distress is manifested in physical symptoms for which medical science can find no explanation. When such patients present their complaints to doctors, they are either told that they do not appear to be suffering from any identifiable disease or they are provided with a recently coined disease label (such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder). Neither approach offers any opening towards effective treatment.
The tyranny of health is promoted by politicians eager to use public health policies as a means of restoring legitimacy and authority. Far from provoking resistance, measures to deter obesity, promote exercise, curtail smoking and restrict alcohol consumption generally find a ready resonance in a society of atomized individuals. In reality, the way towards a more healthy society lies through resistance to the tyranny of health.
Michael Fitzpatrick has been a full-time general practitioner in East London for 25 years. He writes on a range of medical and political subjects, including AIDS, addictions and health scares, for both medical journals and the mainstream media. His books The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (2001), MMR and Autism: What Parents Need To Know (2004) and Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion (2009) are published by Routledge.