Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health [Part 1 - Clinical Iatrogenesis]
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Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health [Part 1 - Clinical Iatrogenesis]



Medical Nemesis:
The Expropriation of Health
[Includes acknowledgements, introduction and Part1 - Clinical Iatrogenesis]

IVAN ILLICH / Random House 1976

Ivan Illich, Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York. First American Edition. Copyright 1976 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Calder & Boyars, Ltd., London. Copyright (c) 1975 by Ivan Illich. Manufactured in the United States of America. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 75-38118 ISBN: 0-394-40225-1


My thinking on medical institutions was shaped over several years in periodic conversations with Roslyn Lindheim and John McKnight. Mrs. Lindheim, Professor of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, is shortly to publish The Hospitalization of Space, and John McKnight, Director of Urban Studies at Northwestern University, is working on The Serviced Society. Without the challenge from these two friends, I would not have found the courage to develop my last conversations with Paul Goodman into this book.

Several others have been closely connected with the growth of this text: Jean Robert and Jean P. Dupuy, who illustrated the economic thesis stated in this book with examples from time-polluting and space-distorting transportation systems; André Gorz, who has been my principal tutor in the politics of health; Marion Boyars, who with admirable competence published the draft of this book in London and thus enabled me to base my final version on a wide spectrum of critical reaction. To them and to all my critics and helpers, and especially to those who have led me to valuable reading, I owe deep gratitude.

This book would never have been written without Valentina Borremans. She has patiently assembled the documentation on which it is based, and refined my judgment and sobered my language with her constant criticism. The chapter on the industrialization of death is a summary of the notes she has assembled for her own book on the history of the face of death.

Cuernavaca, Mexico January 1976


Introduction 3

PART I. Clinical Iatrogenesis

The Epidemics of Modern Medicine 13

Doctors' Effectiveness--an Illusion
Useless Medical Treatment
Doctor-Inflicted Injuries
Defenseless Patients

PART II. Social Iatrogenesis

2. The Medicalization of Life 39

Political Transmission of Iatrogenic Disease
Social Iatrogenesis
Medical Monopoly
Value-Free Cure?
Medicalization of the Budget
The Pharmaceutical Invasion
Diagnostic Imperialism
Preventive Stigma
Terminal Ceremonies
Black Magic
Patient Majorities


PART III. Cultural Iatrogenesis

Introduction 127

3. The Killing of Pain 133

4. The Invention and Elimination of Disease 159

5. Death Against Death 179

Death as Commodity
The Devotional Dance of the Dead
The Danse Macabre
Bourgeois Death
Clinical Death
Trade Union Claims to a Natural Death
Death Under Intensive Care

PART IV. The Politics of Health

6. Specific Counterproductivity 211

7. Political Countermeasures 221

Consumer Protection for Addicts
Equal Access to Torts
Public Controls over the Professional Mafia
The Scientific Organization--of Life
Engineering for a Plastic Womb

8. The Recovery of Health 261

Industrialized Nemesis
From Inherited Myth to Respectful Procedure
The Right to Health
Health as a Virtue

Index 279

About the Author 289


For those considering a respiratory therapist program, nursing program, or going to medical school, consider the plights that are currently going on in medicine, as being prepared for what to expect will make getting the education a lot better.

The medical establishment has become a major threat to health. The disabling impact of professional control over medicine has reached the proportions of an epidemic. Iatrogenesis, the name for this new epidemic, comes from iatros, the Greek word for "physician," and genesis, meaning "origin." Discussion of the disease of medical progress has moved up on the agendas of medical conferences, researchers concentrate on the sick-making powers of diagnosis and therapy, and reports on paradoxical damage caused by cures for sickness take up increasing space in medical dope-sheets. The health professions are on the brink of an unprecedented housecleaning campaign. "Clubs of Cos," named after the Greek Island of Doctors, have sprung up here and there, gathering physicians, glorified druggists, and their industrial sponsors as the Club of Rome has gathered "analysts" under the aegis of Ford, Fiat, and Volkswagen. Purveyors of medical services follow the example of their colleagues in other fields in adding the stick of "limits to growth" to the carrot of ever more desirable vehicles and therapies. Limits to professional health care are a rapidly growing political issue. In whose interest these limits will work will depend to a large extent on who takes the initiative in formulating the need for them: people organized for political action that challenges status-quo professional power, or the health


professions intent on expanding their monopoly even further.

The public has been alerted to the perplexity and uncertainty of the best among its hygienic caretakers. The newspapers are full of reports on volte-face manipulations of medical leaders: the pioneers of yesterday's so-called breakthroughs warn their patients against the dangers of the miracle cures they have only just invented. Politicians who have proposed the emulation of the Russian, Swedish, or English models of socialized medicine are embarrassed that recent events show their pet systems to be highly efficient in producing the same pathogenic--that is, sickening--cures and care that capitalist medicine, albeit with less equal access, produces. A crisis of confidence in modern medicine is upon us. Merely to insist on it would be to contribute further to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and to possible panic.

This book argues that panic is out of place. Thoughtful public discussion of the iatrogenic pandemic, beginning with an insistence upon demystification of all medical matters, will not be dangerous to the commonweal. Indeed, what is dangerous is a passive public that has come to rely on superficial medical housecleanings. The crisis in medicine could allow the layman effectively to reclaim his own control over medical perception, classification, and decision-making. The laicization of the Aesculapian temple could lead to a delegitimizing of the basic religious tenets of modern medicine to which industrial societies, from the left to the right, now subscribe.

My argument is that the layman and not the physician has the potential perspective and effective power to stop the current iatrogenic epidemic. This book offers the lay reader a conceptual framework within which to assess the seamy side of progress against its more publicized benefits.


It uses a model of social assessment of technological progress that I have spelled out elsewhere' and applied previously to education2 and transportation,3 and that I now apply to the criticism of the professional monopoly and of the scientism in health care that prevail in all nations that have organized for high levels of industrialization. In my opinion, the sanitation of medicine is part and parcel of the socio-economic inversion with which Part IV of this book deals.

The footnotes reflect the nature of this text. I assert the right to break the monopoly that academia has exercised over all small print at the bottom of the page. Some footnotes document the information I have used to elaborate and to verify my own preconceived paradigm for optimally limited health care, a perspective that did not necessarily have any place within the mind of the person who collected the corresponding data. Occasionally, I quote my source only as an eyewitness account that is incidentally offered by the expert author, while refusing to accept what he says as expert testimony on the grounds that it is hearsay and therefore ought not to influence the relevant public decisions.

Many more footnotes provide the reader with the kind of bibliographical guidance that I would have appreciated when I first began, as an outsider, to delve into the subject of health care and tried to acquire competence in the political evaluation of medicine's effectiveness. These notes refer to library tools and reference works that I have learned to appreciate in years of single-handed exploration. They also list readings, from technical monographs to novels, that have been of use to me.

Finally, I have used the footnotes to deal with my own

1 Tools for Conviviality (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
2 Deschooling Society, Ruth N. Anshen, ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
3 Energy and Equity (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

parenthetical, supplementary, and tangential suggestions and questions, which would have distracted the reader if kept in the main text. The layman in medicine, for whom this book is written, will himself have to acquire the competence to evaluate the impact of medicine on health care. Among all our contemporary experts, physicians are those trained to the highest level of specialized incompetence for this urgently needed pursuit.

The recovery from society-wide iatrogenic disease is a political task, not a professional one. It must be based on a grassroots consensus about the balance between the civil liberty to heal and the civil right to equitable health care. During the last generations the medical monopoly over health care has expanded without checks and has encroached on our liberty with regard to our own bodies. Society has transferred to physicians the exclusive right to determine what constitutes sickness, who is or might become sick, and what shall be done to such people. Deviance is now "legitimate" only when it merits and ultimately justifies medical interpretation and intervention. The social commitment to provide all citizens with almost unlimited outputs from the medical system threatens to destroy the environmental and cultural conditions needed by people to live a life of constant autonomous healing. This trend must be recognized and eventually be reversed.

Limits to medicine must be something other than professional self-limitation. I will demonstrate that the insistence of the medical guild on its unique qualifications to cure medicine itself is based on an illusion. Professional power is the result of a political delegation of autonomous authority to the health occupations which was enacted during our century by other sectors of the university-trained bourgeoisie: it cannot now be revoked by those who conceded it; it can only be delegitimized by popular


agreement about the malignancy of this power. The self-medication of the medical system cannot but fail. If a public, panicked by gory revelations, were browbeaten into further support for more expert control over experts in health-care production, this would only intensify sickening care. It must now be understood that what has turned health care into a sick-making enterprise is the very intensity of an engineering endeavor that has translated human survival from the performance of organisms into the result of technical manipulation.

"Health," after all, is simply an everyday word that is used to designate the intensity with which individuals cope with their internal states and their environmental conditions. In Homo sapiens, "healthy" is an adjective that qualifies ethical and political actions. In part at least, the health of a population depends on the way in which political actions condition the milieu and create those circumstances that favor self-reliance, autonomy, and dignity for all, particularly the weaker. In consequence, health levels will be at their optimum when the environ-ment brings out autonomous personal, responsible coping ability. Health levels can only decline when survival comes to depend beyond a certain point on the heteronomous (other-directed) regulation of the organism's homeostasis. Beyond a critical level of intensity, institutional health care--no matter if it takes the form of cure, prevention, or environmental engineering--is equivalent to systematic health denial.

The threat which current medicine represents to the health of populations is analogous to the threat which the volume and intensity of traffic represent to mobility, the threat which education and the media represent to learning, and the threat which urbanization represents to competence in homemaking. In each case a major institutional endeavor has turned counterproductive. Time-con-


suming acceleration in traffic, noisy and confusing communications, education that trains ever more people for ever higher levels of technical competence and specialized forms of generalized incompetence: these are all phenomena parallel to the production by medicine of iatrogenic disease. In each case a major institutional sector has removed society from the specific purpose for which that sector was created and technically instrumented.

Iatrogenesis cannot be understood unless it is seen as the specifically medical manifestation of specfic counterproductivity. Specific or paradoxical counterproductivity is a negative social indicator for a diseconomy which remains locked within the system that produces it. It is a measure of the confusion delivered by the news media, the incompetence fostered by educators, or the time-loss represented by a more powerful car. Specific counterproductivity is an unwanted side-effect of increasing institutional outputs that remains internal to the system which itself originated the specific value. It is a social measure for objective frustration. This study of pathogenic medicine was under-taken in order to illustrate in the health-care field the various aspects of counterproductivity that can be observed in all major sectors of industrial society in its present stage. A similar analysis could be undertaken in other fields of industrial production, but the urgency in the field of medicine, a traditionally revered and self-congratulatory service profession, is particularly great.

Built-in iatrogenesis now affects all social relations. It is the result of internalized colonization of liberty by affluence. In rich countries medical colonization has reached sickening proportions; poor countries are quickly following suit. (The siren of one ambulance can destroy Samaritan attitudes in a whole Chilean town.) This process, which I shall call the "medicalization of life," deserves articulate political recognition. Medicine could


become a prime target for political action that aims at an inversion of industrial society. Only people who have recovered the ability for mutual self-care and have learned to combine it with dependence on the application of contemporary technology will be ready to limit the industrial mode of production in other major areas as well.

A professional and physician-based health-care system that has grown beyond critical bounds is sickening for three reasons: it must produce clinical damage that outweighs its potential benefits; it cannot but enhance even as it obscures the political conditions that render society unhealthy; and it tends to mystify and to expropriate the power of the individual to heal himself and to shape his or her environment. Contemporary medical systems have outgrown these tolerable bounds. The medical and paramedical monopoly over hygienic methodology and technology is a glaring example of the political misuse of scientific achievement to strengthen industrial rather than personal growth. Such medicine is but a device to convince those who are sick and tired of society that it is they who are ill, impotent, and in need of technical repair. I will deal with these three levels of sickening medical impact in the first three parts of this book.

The balance sheet of achievement in medical technology will be drawn up in the first chapter. Many people are already apprehensive about doctors, hospitals, and the drug industry and only need data to substantiate their misgivings. Doctors already find it necessary to bolster their credibility by demanding that many treatments now common be formally outlawed. Restrictions on medical performance which professionals have come to consider mandatory are often so radical that they are not accept-able to the majority of politicians. The lack of effectiveness of costly and high-risk medicine is a now widely discussed fact from which I start, not a key issue I want to dwell on.


Part II deals with the directly health-denying effects of medicine's social organization, and Part III with the disabling impact of medical ideology on personal stamina: under three separate headings I describe the transformation of pain, impairment, and death from a personal challenge into a technical problem.

Part IV interprets health-denying medicine as typical of the counterproductivity of overindustrialized civilization and analyzes five types of political response which constitute tactically useful remedies that are all strategically futile. It distinguishes between two modes in which the person relates and adapts to his environment: autonomous (i.e., self-governing) coping and heteronomous (i.e., ad-ministered) maintenance and management. It concludes by demonstrating that only a political program aimed at the limitation of professional management of health will enable people to recover their powers for health care, and that such a program is integral to a society-wide criticism and restraint of the industrial mode of production.



Clinical Iatrogenesis

The Epidemics
of Modern Medicine

During the past three generations the diseases afflicting Western societies have undergone dramatic changes.' Polio, diphtheria, and tuberculosis are vanishing; one shot of an antibiotic often cures pneumonia or syphilis; and so many mass killers have come under control that two-thirds of all deaths are now associated with the diseases of old age. Those who die young are more often than not victims of accidents, violence, or suicide.2

These changes in health status are generally equated with a decrease in suffering and attributed to more or to better medical care. Although almost everyone believes that at least one of his friends would not be alive and well except for the skill of a doctor, there is in fact no evidence of any direct relationship between this mutation of sickness and the so-called progress of medicine.3 The changes are


dependent variables of political and technological trans-formations, which in turn are reflected in what doctors do and say; they are not significantly related to the activities that require the preparation, status, and costly equipment in which the health professions take pride.4 In addition, an expanding proportion of the new burden of disease of the last fifteen years is itself the result of medical intervention in favor of people who are or might become sick. It is doctor-made, or iatrogenic.5

After a century of pursuit of medical utopia,6 and contrary to current conventional wisdom,7 medical services


have not been important in producing the changes in life expectancy that have occurred. A vast amount of contemporary clinical care is incidental to the curing of disease, but the damage done by medicine to the health of individuals and populations is very significant. These facts are obvious, well documented, and well repressed.

Doctors' Effectiveness--An Illusion

The study of the evolution of disease patterns provides evidence that during the last century doctors have affected epidemics no more profoundly than did priests during earlier times. Epidemics came and went, imprecated by both but touched by neither. They are not modified any more decisively by the rituals performed in medical clinics than by those customary at religious shrines.8 Discussion of the future of health care might usefully begin with the recognition of this fact.

The infections that prevailed at the outset of the industrial age illustrate how medicine came by its reputation.9 Tuberculosis, for instance, reached a peak over two generations. In New York in 1812, the death rate was estimated to be higher than 700 per 10,000; by 1882, when Koch first isolated and cultured the bacillus, it had already declined to 370 per 10,000. The rate was down to 180 when the first sanatorium was opened in 1910, even though "consumption" still held second place in the mortality tables.10 After World War II, but before antibi-


otics became routine, it had slipped into eleventh place with a rate of 48. Cholera," dysentery,12 and typhoid similarly peaked and dwindled outside the physician's control. By the time their etiology was understood and their therapy had become specific, these diseases had lost much of their virulence and hence their social importance. The combined death rate from scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles among children up to fifteen shows that nearly 90 percent of the total decline in mortality between 1860 and 1965 had occurred before the introduction of antibiotics and widespread immunization.13 In part this recession may be attributed to improved housing and to a decrease in the virulence of micro-organisms, but by far the most important factor was a higher host-resistance due to better nutrition. In poor countries today, diarrhea and upper-respiratory-tract infections occur more frequently, last longer, and lead to higher mortality where nutrition is poor, no matter how much or how little medical care is available.14 In England, by the middle of the nineteenth century, infectious epidemics had been replaced by major malnutrition syndromes, such as rickets and pellagra. These in turn peaked and vanished, to be replaced by the diseases of early childhood and, somewhat later, by an increase in duodenal ulcers in


young men. When these declined, the modern epidemics took over: coronary heart disease, emphysema, bronchitis, obesity, hypertension, cancer (especially of the lungs), arthritis, diabetes, and so-called mental disorders. Despite intensive research, we have no complete explanation for the genesis of these changes.15 But two things are certain: the professional practice of physicians cannot be credited with the elimination of old forms of mortality or morbidity, nor should it be blamed for the increased expectancy of life spent in suffering from the new diseases. For more than a century, analysis of disease trends has shown that the environment is the primary determinant of the state of general health of any population.16 Medical geography,17


the history of diseases,18 medical anthropology,19 and the social history of attitudes towards illness20 have shown that food,21 water,22 and air,23 in correlation with the level of

sociopolitical equality24 and the cultural mechanisms that make it possible to keep the population stable,25 play the


decisive role in determining how healthy grown-ups feel and at what age adults tend to die. As the older causes of disease recede, a new kind of malnutrition is becoming the most rapidly expanding modern epidemic.26 One-third of humanity survives on a level of undernourishment which would formerly have been lethal, while more and more rich people absorb ever greater amounts of poisons and mutagens in their food.27

Some modern techniques, often developed with the help of doctors, and optimally effective when they become part of the culture and environment or when they are applied independently of professional delivery, have also effected changes in general health, but to a lesser degree. Among these can be included contraception, smallpox vaccination of infants, and such nonmedical health measures as the treatment of water and sewage, the use of soap and scissors by midwives, and some antibacterial and insecticidal procedures. The importance of many of these practices was first recognized and stated by doctors--often courageous dissidents who suffered for their recommendations28


--but this does not consign soap, pincers, vaccination needles, delousing preparations, or condoms to the category of "medical equipment." The most recent shifts in mortality from younger to older groups can be explained by the incorporation of these procedures and devices into the layman's culture.

In contrast to environmental improvements and modern nonprofessional health measures, the specifically medical treatment of people is never significantly related to a decline in the compound disease burden or to a rise in life expectancy.29 Neither the proportion of doctors in a population nor the clinical tools at their disposal nor the number of hospital beds is a causal factor in the striking changes in over-all patterns of disease. The new techniques for recognizing and treating such conditions as pernicious anemia and hypertension, or for correcting congenital malformations by surgical intervention, re-define but do not reduce morbidity. The fact that the doctor population is higher where certain diseases have become rare has little to do with the doctors' ability to control or eliminate them.30 It simply means that doctors


deploy themselves as they like, more so than other professionals, and that they tend to gather where the climate is healthy, where the water is clean, and where people are employed and can pay for their services.31

Useless Medical Treatment

Awe-inspiring medical technology has combined with egalitarian rhetoric to create the impression that contemporary medicine is highly effective. Undoubtedly, during the last generation, a limited number of specific procedures have become extremely useful. But where they are not monopolized by professionals as tools of their trade, those which are applicable to widespread diseases are usually very inexpensive and require a minimum of personal skills, materials, and custodial services from hospitals. In contrast, most of today's skyrocketing medical expenditures are destined for the__ kind_ of diagnosis and treatment whose effectiveness at best doubtful.32 To make this point I will distinguish between infectious and noninfectious diseases.

In the case of infectious diseases, chemotherapy has played a significant role in the control of pneumonia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Death from pneumonia, once the "old man's friend," declined yearly by 5 to 8 percent after sulphonamides and antibiotics came on the market. Syphilis, yaws, and many cases of malaria and typhoid can be cured quickly and easily. The rising rate of venereal


disease is due to new mores, not to ineffectual medicine. The reappearance of malaria is due to the development of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes and not to any lack of new antimalarial drugs.33 Immunization has almost wiped out paralytic poliomyelitis, a disease of developed countries, and vaccines have certainly contributed to the decline of whooping cough and measles,34 thus seeming to confirm the popular belief in "medical progress." 35 But for most other infections, medicine can show no comparable results. Drug treatment has helped to reduce mortality from tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, and scarlet fever, but in the total decline of mortality or morbidity from these diseases, chemotherapy played a minor and possibly insignificant role.36 Malaria, leishmaniasis, and sleeping sickness indeed receded for a time under the onslaught of chemical attack, but are now on the rise again.37


The effectiveness of medical intervention in combatting noninfectious diseases is even more questionable. In some situations and for some conditions, effective progress has indeed been demonstrated: the partial prevention of caries through fluoridation of water is possible, though at a cost not fully understood.38 Replacement therapy lessens the direct impact of diabetes, though only in the short run.39 Through intravenous feeding, blood transfusions, and surgical techniques, more of those who get to the hospital survive trauma, but survival rates for the most common types of cancer--those which make up 90 percent of the cases--have remained virtually unchanged over the last twenty-five years. This fact has consistently been clouded by announcements from the American Cancer Society reminiscent of General Westmoreland's proclamations from Vietnam. On the other hand, the diagnostic value of the Papanicolaou vaginal smear test has been proved: if the tests are given four times a year, early intervention for cervical cancer demonstrably increases the five-year survival rate. Some skin-cancer treatment is highly effective. But there is little evidence of effective treatment of most other cancers.40 The five-year survival rate in breast-can-


cer cases is 50 percent, regardless of the frequency of medical check-ups and regardless of the treatment used.41 Nor is there evidence that the rate differs from that among untreated women. Although practicing doctors and the publicists of the medical establishment stress the importance of early detection and treatment of this and several other types of cancer, epidemiologists have begun to doubt that early intervention can alter the rate of survival.42 Surgery and chemotherapy for rare congenital and rheumatic heart disease have increased the chances for an active life for some of those who suffer from degenerative conditions.43 The medical treatment of common cardiovascular disease44 and the intensive treatment of heart


disease,45 however, are effective only when rather exceptional circumstances combine that are outside the physician's control. The drug treatment of high blood pressure is effective and warrants the risk of side-effects in the few in whom it is a malignant condition; it represents a considerable risk of serious harm, far outweighing any proven benefit, for the 10 to 20 million Americans on whom rash artery-plumbers are trying to foist it.46

Doctor-Inflicted Injuries

Unfortunately, futile but otherwise harmless medical care is the least important of the damages a proliferating medical enterprise inflicts on contemporary society. The pain, dysfunction, disability, and anguish resulting from technical medical intervention now rival the morbidity due to traffic and industrial accidents and even war-related activities, and make the impact of medicine one of the most rapidly spreading epidemics of our time. Among murderous institutional torts, only modern malnutrition injures more people than iatrogenic disease in its various manifestations.47 In the most narrow sense, iatrogenic disease includes only illnesses that would not have come


about if sound and professionally recommended treatment had not been applied.48 Within this definition, a patient could sue his therapist if the latter, in the course of his management, failed to apply a recommended treatment that, in the physician's opinion, would have risked making him sick. In a more general and more widely accepted sense, clinical iatrogenic disease comprises all clinical conditions for which remedies, physicians, or hospitals are the pathogens, or "sickening" agents. I will call this plethora of therapeutic side-effects clinical iatrogenesis. They are as old as medicine itself,49 and have always been a subject of medical studies.50

Medicines have always been potentially poisonous, but their unwanted side-effects have increased with their power51 and widespread use.52 Every twenty-four to thirty-


six hours, from 50 to 80 percent of adults in the United States and the United Kingdom swallow a medically prescribed chemical. Some take the wrong drug; others get an old or a contaminated batch, and others a counterfeit;53 others take several drugs in dangerous combinations;54 and still others receive injections with improperly sterilized syringes.55 Some drugs are addictive, others mutilating, and others mutagenic, although perhaps only in combination with food coloring or insecticides. In some patients, antibiotics alter the normal bacterial flora and induce a superinfection, permitting more resistant organisms to proliferate and invade the host. Other drugs contribute to the breeding of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.56 Subtle kinds of poisoning thus have spread even faster than the bewildering variety and ubiquity of nostrums.57 Unnecessary surgery is a standard procedure.58 Disabling nondiseases


result from the medical treatment of nonexistent diseases and are on the increase:59 the number of children disabled in Massachusetts through the treatment of cardiac non-disease exceeds the number of children under effective treatment for real cardiac disease.60

Doctor-inflicted pain and infirmity have always been a part of medical practice.61 Professional callousness, negli-


gence, and sheer incompetence are age-old forms of malpractice.62 With the transformation of the doctor from an artisan exercising a skill on personally known individuals into a technician applying scientific rules to classes of patients, malpractice acquired an anonymous, almost respectable status.63 What had formerly been considered an abuse of confidence and a moral fault can now be rationalized into the occasional breakdown of equipment and operators. In a complex technological hospital, negligence becomes "random human error" or "system break-down," callousness becomes "scientific detachment," and incompetence becomes "a lack of specialized equipment." The depersonalization of diagnosis and therapy has changed malpractice from an ethical into a technical problem.64

loss of the master's income during his protracted sickness. Citizens were not covered by these statutes, but could avenge malpractice on their own initiative.


In 1971, between 12,000 and 15,000 malpractice suits were lodged in United States courts. Less than half of all malpractice claims were settled in less than eighteen months, and more than 10 percent of such claims remain unsettled for over six years. Between sixteen and twenty percent of every dollar paid in malpractice insurance went to compensate the victim; the rest was paid to lawyers and medical experts.65 In such cases, doctors are vulnerable only to the charge of having acted against the medical code, of the incompetent performance of prescribed treatment, or of dereliction out of greed or laziness. The problem, however, is that most of the damage inflicted by the modern doctor does not fall into any of these categories.66 It occurs in the ordinary practice of well-trained men and women who have learned to bow to prevailing professional judgment and procedure, even though they know (or could and should know) what damage they do.

The United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare calculates that 7 percent of all patients suffer compensable injuries while hospitalized, though few of them do anything about it. Moreover, the frequency of reported accidents in hospitals is higher than in all industries but mines and high-rise construction. Accidents are the major cause of death in American children. In


proportion to the time spent there, these accidents seem to occur more often in hospitals than in any other kind of place. One in fifty children admitted to a hospital suffers an accident which requires specific treatment.67 University hospitals are relatively more pathogenic, or, in blunt language, more sickening. It has also been established that one out of every five patients admitted to a typical research hospital acquires an iatrogenic disease, sometimes trivial, usually requiring special treatment, and in one case in thirty leading to death. Half of these episodes result from complications of drug therapy; amazingly, one in ten comes from diagnostic procedures.68 Despite good intentions and claims to public service, a military officer with a similar record of performance would be relieved of his command, and a restaurant or amusement center would be closed by the police. No wonder that the health industry tries to shift the blame for the damage caused onto the victim, and that the dope-sheet of a multinational pharmaceutical concern tells its readers that "iatrogenic disease is almost always of neurotic origin." 69

Defenseless Patients

The undesirable side-effects of approved, mistaken, callous, or contraindicated technical contacts with the medical system represent just the first level of pathogenic medicine. Such clinical iatrogenesis includes not only the damage that doctors inflict with the intent of curing or of exploiting the patient, but also those other torts that result from the doctor's attempt to protect himself against the


possibility of a suit for malpractice. Such attempts to avoid litigation and prosecution may now do more damage than any other iatrogenic stimulus.

On a second level,70 medical practice sponsors sickness by reinforcing a morbid society that encourages people to become consumers of curative, preventive, industrial, and environmental medicine. On the one hand defectives survive in increasing numbers and are fit only for life under institutional care, while on the other hand, medically certified symptoms exempt people from industrial work and thereby remove them from the scene of political struggle to reshape the society that has made them sick. Second-level iatrogenesis finds its expression in various symptoms of social overmedicalization that amount to what I shall call the expropriation of health. This second-level impact of medicine I designate as social iatrogenesis, and I shall discuss it in Part II.

On a third level, the so-called health professions have an even deeper, culturally health-denying effect insofar as they destroy the potential of people to deal with their human weakness, vulnerability, and uniqueness in a personal and autonomous way. The patient in the grip of contemporary medicine is but one instance of mankind in the grip of its pernicious techniques.71 This cultural iatrogen-


esis, which I shall discuss in Part III, is the ultimate backlash of hygienic progress and consists in the paralysis of healthy responses to suffering, impairment, and death. It occurs when people accept health management de-signed on the engineering model, when they conspire in an attempt to produce, as if it were a commodity, something called "better health." This inevitably results in the managed maintenance of life on high levels of sublethal illness. This ultimate evil of medical "progress" must be clearly distinguished from both clinical and social iatrogenesis.

I hope to show that on each of its three levels iatrogenesis has become medically irreversible: a feature built right into the medical endeavor. The unwanted physiological, social, and psychological by-products of diagnostic and therapeutic progress have become resistant to medical remedies. New devices, approaches, and organizational arrangements, which are conceived as remedies for clinical and social iatrogenesis, t...
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