I talk a lot about numbers and statistics, but as the Director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center Dr. David Katz put it in an editorial in the American Journal of Health Promotion, to reach doctors, our fellow colleagues, maybe we need to put a human face on it all.
We have known, for at least a decade that the “leading causes of both premature death and persistent misery in our society are chronic diseases that are, in turn, attributable to the use of our feet (exercise), forks (diet), and fingers (cigarette smoking). Feet, forks, and fingers are the master levels of medical destiny for not just thousands of people on any one occasion but the medical destiny of millions upon millions year after year.”
We as doctors, as a medical profession have known—Ornish published his landmark study 23 years ago. “We have known, but we have not managed to care,” writes Dr. Katz.
“At least not care deeply enough to turn what we know into what we routinely do.” Were we to do so, we might be able to eliminate most heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and cancer.
But saving millions of lives is just a number. He asks doctors to “forget the bland statistics of public health, and ask yourself if you love someone who has suffered a heart attack, stroke, cancer, or diabetes … Now imagine their faces, whisper their names. Recall what it felt like to get the news. And while at it, imagine the faces of others readers like you and me imagining beloved faces.”
“Now imagine if eight out of ten of us wistfully reflecting on intimate love and loss, on personal anguish, never got that dreadful news because it never happened. Mom did not get cancer; dad did not have a heart attack; grandpa did not have a stroke; sister, brother, aunt, and uncle did not lose a limb or kidney or eyes to diabetes. We are all intimately linked, in a network of personal tragedy that need never have occurred.”
Which leads to what he is asking doctors to do about it: put a face on public health every chance you get. “When talking about heart disease and its prevention—or cancer or diabetes—ask your audience to see in their mind’s eye the face of a loved one affected by that condition. Then imagine that loved one among the 80% who need never have succumbed if what we knew as doctors were what we do.”
Invoke the mind’s eye, he advises, and then bring a tear to it.
I think I’ve only profiled one other editorial (Ornish’s Convergence of Evidence), but this one really struck me (so much so I used it to close out my latest live presentation (More Than an Apple a Day: Combating Common Diseases).
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.