October 21, 2010

My HMO hires witch doctors.

Magical thinking is the belief that there’s an unseen, supernatural force at work that causes things to happen.

It dominated most of human history and started to go out of style with the Age of Reason in the 1700’s – but magical thinking has never completely disappeared. From belief in the Evil Eye to fundamentalist Christian Pat Robertson’s assertion that the events of September 11, 2001 were God’s punishment for homosexuality in America (huh?) in magical thinking there’s a tendency to discount the physical world as being the source of the things that happen in it. It all comes from somewhere else. And for all I know “somewhere else” may have an effect, but of what I see, at least 90% (if not 95, 99 or 100%), has its origins in the causes set in motion right here in good ol’ physical reality.

I reflect on this because whenever I interact with my so-called Health Maintenance Organization, I am amazed that their doctors’ magical thinking puts them a lot closer to witch doctors than they might realize.

For instance, the ophthalmologist I saw recently was courteous, personable and professional. “I’ve never been able to touch my toes,” he told me when he found out I taught yoga. I replied that few adults in our culture start off that way and that the body is a lot more adaptable than we think.

Then we got around to discussing my tests: they showed that I need stronger lenses than last time. Acknowledging this, I asked if there was anything I could do to help my eyes (aside from wearing glasses or contacts).


“No? Exercises? Stuff to help them relax?”


This is where I should’ve asked him, “You mean the fact that my mother can see better at 76 than I at 41 has nothing to do with me spending ten hours a day looking at a computer or a smartphone – and she never does that?”

Yes, I should’ve asked that, but it would’ve come across as acting like I know more than he. Or picking a fight.

So instead I asked him, “What about those contact lenses that an acquaintance of mine has – she wears them at night and takes them off in the morning and has perfect vision during the day?”

He chuckled. “Yeah. That’s called orthokeratology. I don’t recommend it.”

“Why? What’s the downside?”

“By the end of the day your cornea comes back to its natural shape and you’ve lost the improvement.”

Considering that you put those lenses back on at night, I don’t see how that’s a problem. Unless, I suppose, you need to see your dreams in 20-20. It may be an apples-to-oranges comparison, but I’ve got braces and I know that if I were to take them off right now, my teeth would eventually go back to where they were. That doesn’t mean orthodontics is bad.

“I’d recommend Lasik any day over that,” he added.

“Really? What about all the horror stories out there?”

“Yeah, there are some horror stories out there, aren’t there?” he smiled, and continued typing the results of my less-than-optimum vision assessment.

And that was that.

Still no addressing any cause-effect correlation between eye strain and myopia. As nice as he is, he is here to provide me with crutches, and there’s no plan for going off these crutches for the rest of my life. In his mind, I’m as stuck with the crutches as he is stuck with the fact that he can’t touch his toes.

I don’t know about you, but this professional toe-toucher doesn’t believe that inflexibility is a permanent condition any more than myopia is. In my worldview, these conditions are not magical; they have a root cause here in the physical world: for him, perhaps his absence of exercise or stretching; for me, that I’ve yet to find a way to wean myself off focusing on something close to me for so many hours a day.

Then there was the time when I asked my primary care physician if I could be expected to do better about not getting diabetes than both my parents, because years ago I gave up sugar (and all the products that sneak sugar into them). She replied, “Oh, that won’t have any effect.”

“Excuse me?”

“The amount of sugar you can consume won’t make you diabetic.”

Really? There’s absolutely no connection, no remote correlation between our skyrocketing diabetes epidemic and the fact that we’re consuming an average of 142 pounds of sugar per person per year in the United States? I’m willing to admit that there may be other factors in there and that those average 142 pounds might not in itself be the root cause of the explosion of diabetes, but really, no amount of sugar I can consume can make me diabetic?

Dling-dling-dling-dling-dling! “Excuse me!” This is me, in my imagination ringing a little bell and raising my hand in school. “Excuse me, teach! So what’s diabetes caused by, then? Bad luck? The Evil Eye? God, who, after creating a universe that spans billions and billions of light years is really furious that some tiny creatures (in some tiny isolated corner of a tiny solar system in an average galaxy) are not doing what the rest of those creatures do with their privates? I’m asking ‘cause this is sounding a lot like magical thinking!”

“Bad genes,” is the best she could come up with.

Really? Where did our genes go wrong all of a sudden in the evolutionary chain? Because coincidentally we didn’t have a diabetic epidemic before the explosion in the consumption of sugar (and corn syrup, and a bunch of other sweeteners). What to make of the fact that the ancient Greeks (who noted every known illness and how they attempted to treat it) were completely silent regarding diabetes? They didn’t say, “As far as diabetes, we’re clueless on how to treat it.” No; they didn’t mention it at all. There was no diabetes in ancient Greece.

And even if our modern witch doctors are right, even if it is bad genes, isn’t there possibly a wisp of a chance that by doing things that help and not hinder the functioning of the body we might just stack the odds in our favor?

Calling upon the same scientific rigor that made him a successful brain researcher, in the book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD., makes the point that cancer isn’t a coincidental, capricious disease; it’s not some sort of lottery that, like an IRS audit, you hope never to win. No; he says it’s a direct result of specific choices taken daily over the course of years; and knowing and understanding what those choices are is the real solution to beating cancer. At any given time, all of us have cancerous cells in our system, he reminds us; but only a specific subset of the population will go on to develop cancer. His book is an exploration of who’s likely to develop cancer and why, as well a collection of current and rigorous scientific research into what helps to keep cancer at bay. And while he doesn’t discount genetics, he thinks they’re far less important than generally accepted. He quotes a fascinating study with surprising conclusions: the genes you inherit don’t predispose you to cancer as much as the habits you learn from your family – studies done with adopted and non-adopted kids show beyond statistical doubt that the risk runs with the family that raises you and whose habits you acquire, not the one that gave you your genetic makeup.

He’s basically telling us that the human body wants to function perfectly. So long as it hasn’t been damaged beyond repair, it will endeavor to repair itself if the conditions that keep it injured are removed and all the areas are treated correctly. Muscles need exercise. Organs need purity of stuff you take in or are exposed to, and the right amount of nutrients to maintain them. That’s it.

Ostensibly this is news to the folks at my HMO, who parade their state of the art ability to treat diabetes but never draw our attention to the question, “Is your carbohydrate consumption through the roof now, not ten years from now when you walk in for treatment?” Or where “eye strain” is just the first part of the song “you strain, we all strain, because we’ve got eye strain.”

Apparently the Age of Reason arrived very selectively for some of these doctors, as they preach to their patients that there is no cause and effect.

Just bad luck and the Evil Eye, apparently.

Picture credit: Robertandamanda

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