It is way to easy to create a crisis in health. I could very simply create a crisis about headaches by using alarming figures. Each year well over 90% of the population experiences a headache but less than 1% will get treatment from their doctor. Sounds really bad. A serious problem, which is not being adequately treated. More funding is needed to address this.

The basic facts are correct but the key part is what I have omitted. Yes most people will have a headache through the course of a year. However most will go away by themselves and most of the rest can be “treated” with analgesics bought from the chemist or supermarket. Hence there is no need to see a doctor for treatment. Suddenly the dire figures are not so dire.

With headaches we all know this from our own experience – but what about other conditions where frightening statistics can be presented with some key facts left out?

The Australian Lung Foundation (which regular readers will recall gets considerable funding from a pharmaceutical company) has come out with suitably alarming figures on lung health.

“A total of 43% of Australians aged 35 and over say they experience at least one of the following symptoms of lung disease.

  • Get breathless from walking up a small flight of stairs with between 8-12 steps
  • A chest infection at least twice a year
  • A new cough, a persistent cough, or their cough has recently changed, regularly cough up phlegm (not due to a cold or flu)
  • An unexplained ache in their chest or back area, or sometimes feel tightness in their chest or wheeze”

This begs the question – How do we live? It is almost difficult to know where to start. There are numerous reasons why people may have some of these symptoms and they are not due to “lung disease”. On any given day virtually everyone will cough. This is the lungs way of getting rid of stuff like dust or pollen. Those who work in air conditioning are particularly prone to an irritant cough. The same goes for those with any allergy or hay fever tendency.

An unexplained ache in the chest or back covers many things including strained muscles, which are extremely common. Getting breathless walking up steps generally is a function of fitness and so it goes.

So yes, all the symptoms mentioned could be due to lung disease but in the vast majority of instances it will not be. The figure of 43% will include people who have “symptoms” but no disease. In fact it is very simple to reclassify normal body sensations as symptoms.

A cough is a normal body function but it can also be a “symptom”. Tightness in the chest can come from running quickly and needing to catch your breath – a normal body function. It can, in some people, be a “symptom” of asthma too.

The bottom line here is we need to be very suspicious of claims about health crises and large numbers of people having disease that they do not yet know about. Almost always this will be promoted by vested interest that wants to sell some sort of “cure”. Reclassifying people with normal body sensations as having symptoms of disease is a great way to increase the marketplace and hence sales.

If we are facing any sort of crisis, it is a crisis of over diagnosis and of turning normal healthy people into patients with disease.