Rethinking the Role of Technology in Health Care

Our dependence on medical technology distracts us from the more important goals of disease prevention and health promotion, and it blinds us to the body’s own capacity for healing.

| January 27, 2011

Technology In Health Care

In most sectors of the economy, new technology usually brings costs down. But the Congressional Budget Office reports that 50 percent of the recent increases in the cost of health care are attributable to the introduction of new technology, including pharmaceutical drugs.


The following is an excerpt from You Can’t Afford to Get Sick by Andrew Weil, M.D. (Hudson Street Press, 2010). In this best-selling book, Dr. Weil, one of the world's foremost authorities on health, wellness and integrative medicine, explains how we can and why we must transform the American health care system to stop making corporations rich, stop making our society poor, and start each of us on the road to optimum health. This excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Exposing the Myths of American Health Care.” 

The rise of scientific medicine in the last century was accompanied and enabled by the phenomenal progress of technology. The benefits of medical technology are obvious. The problems it has caused, including the ways it has warped medical thinking, are not so obvious. But they are very real.

The dazzling effect of technology is a major reason for the health care industry’s lopsided focus on disease management. Priorities of reimbursement both reflect and exacerbate this imbalance. Insurance pays for procedures and drugs, not for lifestyle counseling. This must change if we are to contain costs.

The Congressional Budget Office has reported that 50 percent of the recent increases in the cost of health care are attributable to the introduction of new technology, including pharmaceutical drugs. Something is very wrong here, because in most sectors of the economy, new technology usually brings costs down.

Although I think our high-tech approaches are overrated and overused, I am not a medical Luddite. Medical technology is terrific when it is used appropriately. I would never hesitate to use it for the management of severe, critical, life-threatening conditions. But we are using it for practically everything, and it is costing us far too much — not only in expense but also in harm caused. On top of that, it distracts us from the more important goals of disease prevention and health promotion, and it blinds us to the true nature and source of healing, which is an innate capacity of one’s own body.

The various successes of technological medicine have made the concepts of prevention, health promotion, and the simpler modalities of integrative medicine seem lackluster and old-fashioned. Words like the “healing power of nature” sound distinctly out of context in a contemporary health care facility, with its devices, instruments and drugs. To modern ears, they suggest a bygone era when superstition ruled and the light of scientific knowledge was dim. The time-honored concept of treatment as facilitation of an innate process of healing has been replaced by the belief that treatment itself is the cause of healing and of any recovery. Before the explosive development of medical technology, doctors and patients valued more natural, less invasive therapies, even though these therapies sometimes took more time to help the body heal itself. Today, most doctors and patients prefer drastic interventions that give quick results. Admittedly, treatment of disease is much more exciting than ever before — look at the popularity of television shows about hospitals and operating rooms. Who would want to watch shows about doctors discussing diet with patients?

9/19/2014 12:46:02 AM

The fact that the lowest possible dose of ionizing radiation is capable of causing cancer (discussed in the book "The Mammogram Myth" by Rolf Hefti - more at ) means it isn't that "mammograms can be dangerous" - they ARE dangerous. If you properly acknowledge other relevant harms of the procedure, such as overdiagnosis, instead of dismiss or ignore them as the mammogram industry has been doing as a matter of routine for decades, that data overwhelmingly substantiate that this test does more harm than good in almost all women screened.

jeri kastner
10/9/2012 2:59:05 PM

This is from a friend that is a dentist and shows how clearly the medical system is broken -- "I had a patient yesterday who had a problem with a tooth immediately after a new filling was placed last April. Instead of coming back to the office, she went to the ER. She was treated for the immediate pain and referred to her primary care MD. He decided she had either a blocked salivary duct, a tumor in her sinus or Trigeminal Neuralgia (google it). She saw an ENT and had thousands of dollars worth of tests. They decided on the trigeminal neuralgia and wanted to treat her with anti-seizure meds. They assured her she had no infection.The pain had gone away, but not the slight swelling under her lip above the tooth. She was told that was scar tissue from the injection site (!). She finally came in yesterday for her cleaning and check up and told me the story. She had a dental abscess associated with the tooth behind the one that was filled in April. She does not have scar tissue (what an absurd notion!) and she does not have Trigeminal Neuralgia. I knew by listening to her story and looking in her mouth I confirmed it with 2 xrays ($120). And politicians think they can fix healthcare! Doctors can't even fix healthcare!"

t brandt
2/11/2011 4:59:30 PM

Excellent article. My only disagreement is that the author has underestimated the cost of "defensive medicine." Having practiced medicine for 40 yrs, I can assure everyone that CT & MRI scans and such have not added a day to anyone's life. With this technology, we no longer have to perform "exploratory surgery." Now we know what we'll find before we do surgery. Before this technology was available, we made the right diagnosis in the same proportion of cases as we do now, but used only good clinical skills to do it. The courts no longer allow us to rely on our expertise and skill. We must "prove" our thoughts with test results. The courts also demand we use expensive treatments that exhibit minimal improvement over cheaper, more natural treatments. Remember: nobody gets out of this alive, anyways! ;-)

carmen ortiz
2/1/2011 5:55:44 AM

I agree with this article. I worked for years with one of the two top healthcare insurance companies and I had the last say in many cases as to coverage or not for treatments so I know how the system works. That is why I don't have healthcare insurance. I rarely buy anything that's pre-cooked and I grow most of my produce and fruits organically in my city lot. In twelve years, I have spent less than $1,000 in medical care. (A friend failed to mention her kid had "red eye", something fell in my eye, a tetanus shot, vaccine busters.) I'm rarely sick and I never take medications outside of an occasional aspirin. I'm also almost 64. My daughter used to believe in modern medicine and almost died twice because of it. The medications she was getting were making her worse and causing very scary reactions. I finally convinced her to stop using them and she got better. Now she is rarely sick. The problem is convincing people there is a better solution but most people are so brain washed by the drug companies (especially) that they don't try the alternatives the article mentions. But, everyone has to assume responsibility on their own or suffer the consequences.

1/31/2011 11:21:45 AM

I agree with everything he said, however, stating the obvious is not going to change the situation. The doctors are not educated in alternative medicine; they are taught symptomatic medicine not causal. Medical treatments are aimed ( in majority of the cronic condition cases) to mask the symptoms not to eliminate the cause. Medical facilities are getting paid by the sick people. There is no incentive to get a patient well because he/she will not come back and will not bring more money. So, from where their paycheck will come? It will come from us by keeping us half-sick, not healthy. Making long story short: US medical care is the result of our politico-economical system. It is up to us as individuals to take care of our health and the health of our children by reading, researching, and making choices. There is always the temptation to complain about no time, no money, no whatever to practically implement your discoveries. You just need to remember that nobody will do it for you if not you. They are there to make money on your sickness not your health.

jairo danilo parra
1/31/2011 9:28:00 AM

So nice someone place the finger in the wound!. You see, nature healing would take millions from a few and place them in the hands of most, this is the real reason why......

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