Thursday, 17 November 2011
Medicine and other sciences have advanced immensely since Antiquity. Unfortunately, many of their fundamental principles have barely spread beyond the circle of professionals and specialists. Even in the 21st century, important segments of the population still know less about their own health than about sports or entertainment celebrities.
Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the most famous physician of Ancient Greece, already identified basic rules for protecting our health. However, although many generations have passed, his major discovery, the idea that sickness rarely happens by chance, is still ignored by millions of people.
Centuries ago, the belief that illness was a matter of bad luck was widespread in society. In our days, even though such conception has become less prevalent, it still plays a key role in determining how we live, how we see ourselves, and how we make important decisions.
According to Hippocrates, medical practitioners should above all allow Nature to exert its curative powers on patients. Artificial remedies should be avoided because they interfere with the self-healing capacities of our body. Treatments should be mild and gentle, aiming at helping patients recover their energies and strengthen their natural defences.
Illness, better than cured, should be prevented whenever possible. Hippocrates named the three essential risks that are, in most cases, responsible for our physical decay: our food, our environment, and our personal habits. The conclusion that follows is that each individual is primarily responsible for his own health, barring irresistible accident or catastrophe.
Modern holistic medicine has adopted many of Hippocrates' precepts, emphasizing a balanced diet, adequate rest, mild exercise, and peace of mind. Does it not stand to reason that it is immeasurably less expensive to avoid sickness than to cure it? Why do millions of individuals destroy their health thought self-defeating behaviour?
No one possesses perfect knowledge of the impact of each of his actions on his own health, but we do know enough to be able to prevent a large number of self-inflicted diseases. How many people are actually unaware of the perverse effects of smoking? What percentage of heavy drinkers can claim to ignore the dire consequences of excessive alcohol intake?
The answers to those questions point out to individual responsibility. In ancient times, patients used to blame sickness on supernatural forces. Nowadays, victims of their own faulty behaviour frequently blame third parties for illness or injury. In some cases, this is done with the aim of seeking a financial reward or other type of compensation.
During the last fifty years, massive efforts have been devoted to raising public awareness of fundamental health issues. The results, however, are all but encouraging. Advertising campaigns aiming at making individuals more responsible for their own health have still to provide evidence of long-term success.
If we look around, we still see millions of people making the same mistakes that citizens of Ancient Greece made in Hippocrates' time. We remain passive in the face of environmental threats to our health, we eat the wrong food or too much of it, and we lead unsustainable lifestyles that end up damaging our body.
What is the reason of the failure of most attempts to increase personal responsibility in health matters? Are people impervious to rational arguments? Is the message not sufficiently powerful or interesting? Shouldn't the importance of a good health not be self-evident to an adult audience?
The root of the problem might lie more in the theory than in its implementation. The whole discussion about responsibility might be missing an essential factor whose role in health protection is little understood, namely, entrepreneurship. Individuals who possess personal initiative want to take their destiny into their own hands, not only financially, but also in the area of physical and mental well-being.
Entrepreneurship helps prevent sickness because it trains the mind to compare current actions with future consequences. Medical doctors advise patients to behave and eat rationally. Similarly, businessmen assess markets, identify what consumers want to buy, and design their products accordingly.
They know that going against the facts of reality will fail to produce profits or, even worse, might push them into bankruptcy. Mistakes teach entrepreneurs what doesn't work. Errors force them to correct a misguided course. Their efforts are channelled productively into worthy pursuits.
Business is at the same time self-regulating and self-encouraging. In the market, virtuous behaviour tends to occur naturally because it furthers businessmen's own interests. There is no reason that would prevent a similar process from taking place in the field of preventive medicine.
If we want to improve our health, entrepreneurship is a workable, although far from self-evident solution. Few people change their lifestyle before they internalize the necessity to do it.
Smokers who quit their noxious habit have often been shaken by the realization that they are shortening their days. Their transformation frequently takes place after witnessing a fellow smoker die of lung cancer.
Rote learning rarely instils personal responsibility, neither in the field of preventive medicine nor in other areas. Entrepreneurship is a much better approach to encouraging individuals to take command of their health.
Hippocrates' principles should not be engraved in stone, but in our souls; they should not be presented as dead words, but as promises of a better future.
The essential characteristic of entrepreneurship, the need of constant focused action, promotes rapid learning to an extent that no education system can equal. Telling someone a hundred times a day that he should behave responsibly will simply put him to sleep.
In contrast, showing him the advantages of entrepreneurial action might whet his curiosity and prompt him to action. What man learns through example and experience is rarely forgotten. Hippocrates, who also made a point of practising his own theories and preaching by example, lived to be 90 years old.
[Image by Vividy under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]