Un saggio critica della medicina
Tools for Conviviality di Ivan Illich (.pdf 518 Kb)

I - Two Watersheds

The year 1913 marks a watershed in the history of modern medicine. Around that year a patient began to have more than a fifty-fifty chance that a graduate of a medical school would provide him with a specifically effective treatment (if, of course, he was suffering from one of the standard diseases recognized by the medical science of the time). Many shamans and herb doctors familiar with local diseases and remedies and trusted by their clients had always had equal or better results.
Since then medicine has gone on to define what constitutes disease and its treatment. The Westernized public learned to demand effective medical practice as defined by the progress of medical science. For the first time in history doctors could measure their efficiency against scales which they themselves had devised. This progress was due to a new perspective of the origins of some ancient scourges; water could be purified and infant mortality lowered; rat control could disarm the plague; treponemas could be made visible under the microscope and Salvarsan could eliminate them with statistically defined risks of poisoning the patient; syphilis could be avoided, or recognized and cured by rather simple procedures; diabetes could be diagnosed and self-treatment with insulin could prolong the life of the patient. Paradoxically, the simpler the tools became, the more the medical profession insisted on a monopoly of their application, the longer became the training demanded before a medicine man was initiated into the legitimate use of the simplest tool, and the more the entire population felt dependent on the doctor.

Hygiene turned from being a virtue into a professionally organized ritual at the altar of a science.
Infant mortality was lowered, common forms of infection were prevented or treated, some forms of crisis intervention became quite effective. The spectacular decline in mortality and morbidity was due to changes in sanitation, agriculture, marketing, and general attitudes toward life. But though these changes were sometimes influenced by the attention that engineers paid to new facts discovered by medical science, they could only occasionally be ascribed to the intervention of doctors.
Indirectly, industrialization profited from the new effectiveness attributed to medicine; work attendance was raised, and with it the claim to efficiency on the job. The destructiveness of new tools was hidden from public view by new techniques of providing spectacular treatments for those who fell victims to industrial violence such as the speed of cars, tension on the job, and poisons in the environment.
The sickening side effects of modern medicine became obvious after World War II, but doctors needed time to diagnose drug resistant microbes or genetic damage caused by prenatal X-rays as new epidemics. The claim made by George Bernard Shaw a generation earlier, that doctors had ceased to be healers and were assuming control over the patient's entire life, could still be regarded as a caricature. Only in the mid-fifties did it become evident that medicine had passed a second watershed and had itself created new kinds of disease.
Foremost among iatrogenic (doctor-induced) diseases was the pretense of doctors that they provided their clients with superior health. First, social planners and doctors became its victims. Soon this epidemic aberration spread to society at large. Then, during the last fifteen years, professional medicine became a major threat to health. Huge amounts of money were spent to stem immeasurable damage caused by medical treatments. The cost of healing was dwarfed by the cost of extending sick life; more people survived longer months with their lives hanging on a plastic tube, imprisoned in iron lungs, or hooked onto kidney machines. New sickness was defined and institutionalized; the cost of enabling people to survive in unhealthy cities and in sickening jobs sky-
rocketed. The monopoly of the medical profession was extended over an increasing range of everyday occurrences in every man's life.


The exclusion of mothers, aunts, and other nonprofessionals from the care of their pregnant, abnormal, hurt, sick, or dying relatives and friends resulted in new demands for medical services at a much faster rate than the medical establishment could deliver. As the value of services rose, it became almost impossible for people to care. Simultaneously, more conditions were defined as needing treatment by creating new specializations or paraprofessions to keep the tools under the control of the guild.
At the time of the second watershed, preservation of the sick life of medically dependent people in an unhealthy environment became the principal business of the medical profession. Costly prevention and costly treatment became increasingly the privilege of those individuals who through previous consumption of medical services had established a claim to more of it. Access to specialists, prestige hospitals, and life-machines goes preferentially to those people who live in large cities, where the cost of basic disease prevention, as of water treatment and pollution control, is already exceptionally high. The higher the per capita cost of prevention, the higher, paradoxically, became the per capita cost of treatment. The prior consumption of costly prevention and treatment establishes a claim for even more extraordinary care. Like the modern school system, hospital-based health care fits the principle that those who have will receive even more and those who have not will be taken for the little that they have. In schooling this means that high consumers of education will get postdoctoral grants, while dropouts learn that they have failed. In medicine the same principle assures that suffering will increase with increased medical care; the rich will be given more treatment for iatrogenic diseases and the poor will just suffer from them.
After this second turning point, the unwanted hygienic by-products of medicine began to affect entire populations rather than just individual men. In rich countries medicine began to sustain the middle-aged until they became decrepit and needed more doctors and increasingly complex medical tools.

In poor countries, thanks to modern medicine, a larger percentage of children began to survive into adolescence and more women survived more pregnancies. Populations increased beyond the capacities of their environments and the restraints and efficiencies of their
cultures to nurture them. Western doctors abused drugs for the treatment of diseases with which native populations had learned to live. As a result they bred new strains of disease with which modern treatment, natural immunity, and traditional culture could not cope. On a world-wide scale, but particularly in the U.S.A., medical care concentrated on breeding a human stock that was fit only for domesticated life within an increasingly more costly, man-made, scientifically controlled environment. One of the main speakers at the 1970 AMA convention exhorted her pediatric colleagues to consider each newborn baby as a patient until the child could be certified as healthy. Hospital-born, formula-fed, antibiotic-stuffed children thus grow into adults who can breathe the air, eat the food, and survive the lifelessness of a modern city, who will breed and raise at almost any cost a generation even more dependent on medicine.
Bureaucratic medicine spread over the entire world. In 1968, after twenty years of Mao's regime, the Medical College of Shanghai had to conclude that it was engaged in the training of "so-called first-rate doctors ... who ignore five million peasants and serve only minorities in cities. They create large expenses for routine laboratory examinations . . . Describe huge amounts of antibiotics unnecessarily . . . and in the absence of hospital or laboratory facilities have to limit themselves to explaining the mechanisms of the disease to people for whom they cannot do anything, and to whom this explanation is irrelevant." In China this recognition led to a major institutional inversion. Today, the same college reports that one million health workers have reached acceptable levels of competence. These health workers are laymen who in periods of low agricultural manpower needs have attended short courses, starting with the dissection of pigs, gone on to the performance of routine lab tests, the study of the elements of bacteriology, pathology, clinical medicine, hygiene, and acupuncture, and continued in apprenticeship with doctors or previously trained colleagues.

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L'intero saggio è richiedibile attraverso il Club dell'AGGIORNAMENTO delle Edizioni ARCIPELAGO (VAI)