In the past few years, as a surgeon, I have become increasingly aware of the scourge of the wellness industry. I am seeing patients who opt for diets, supplements or magical therapies instead of the less seductive – though scientifically grounded – medicine I have to offer. Like everyone else, I am constantly bombarded with messages in advertisements and from well-meaning friends as to how this diet or that vitamin is the key to health, longevity, beauty and status.
Gwyneth Paltrow in The Goop Lab.Credit:Netflix
At the moment, every time I turn on Netflix The Goop Lab appears as a show I might enjoy watching. Given that Goop exists on a platform of misinformation, privilege and anti-science rhetoric, it's safe to say that as a surgeon and health communicator, I will not be contributing to actress Gwyneth Paltrow's growing wealth by watching her pseudoscience.
The growth of Goop and, more broadly, of the multitrillion-dollar wellness industry is cause for concern. On the surface, it looks full of promise and hope. Dig just a little deeper, beyond the claims of all-natural miracles – the energy healing, the cold therapy, the anti-ageing treatments – and what we find is, at best, a waste of money and, at worst, harmful methods that compromise your health. Research has shown that for those with cancer, using alternative therapies such as homeopathy or specialised diets led to people opting away from proven treatments and an increased risk of dying from that cancer. Make no mistake: what wellness sells is by no means harmless.
For doctors such as myself, the rise of this brand of wellness is distressing. However, medicine as a profession and a science has no doubt played a part in the genesis and growth of big wellness. For virtually the whole of its existence, medicine has disenfranchised women and, to varying degrees, continues to do so. Even as medicine has modernised with an emphasis on autonomy and resolving bias, it remains, at times, paternalistic and patriarchal. It comes as no surprise, then, that women are over-represented in the wellness industry, both as consumers and providers.
Medical care has not accounted for what women need and want. Women are more often dissatisfied with medical care, feeling it has failed to recognise their autonomy and unique biological and social needs. Women are more likely to have chronic illness and autoimmune diseases, both of which can be challenging to treat from a doctor's point of view but even more challenging to live with.
Even among diseases on which we have made tremendous strides in treatment, female patients are often left behind. Women who experience heart disease are more likely to be subjected to misdiagnosis, inadequate treatment and poor outcomes. In the realm of pain management, women are more likely to be given anti-anxiety medication than painkillers, diminishing their experience with pain. Even in endometriosis, women face a wait of seven years on average until diagnosis. Women also remain under-represented in research trials, with that absence translating to science that serves men well but lacks understanding of women's bodies and experiences. These differences are not explained wholly by biology, but rather by structural biases across the medical industry.
If you feel excluded by medicine, why wouldn't you look elsewhere? The wellness industry has filled a gap in health and wellbeing that the practice and science of medicine have left wide open. The wellness industry purports to be everything conventional medicine is not: egalitarian, hopeful and accessible. Even though it is elitist, privileged and full of falsehoods, it does not matter to those who seek its comfort. It's offering something that my profession, despite advances and improvements, has not been able to deliver consistently.
Last month, the head of Britain's National Health Service delivered a stinging assessment of the growth of the wellness industry and the harms that the willful ignorance of science is bringing. Although it is entirely appropriate that healthcare professionals fight the rising tide of medical misinformation, if we do not recognise and address our own role in its creation, the fight will be futile. Medicine needs to understand that we have contributed to the Goops of the world. The elevation of expensive and even harmful remedies is, in part, our own doing.
To truly ensure people's safety, medicine must of course denounce dangerous, unnecessary and expensive snake oil, but it must also turn its attention inward and provide care that people need and want, communicated with compassion and supporting their autonomy. If we are to ensure that people are protected against medical half-truths and harmful remedies, my profession must move far away from the patriarchal practices that have alienated so many. Medicine has helped create this problem, and we must do better to be its solution.
Nikki Stamp is a heart and lung surgeon in Perth, Australia
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