By Joshua Campbell, Ghent, Belgium
Are we sicker than our eyes would have us believe? Are we very good at band aiding our ill conditions and making it seem like all is ok? These are questions I have been pondering on ever since I moved to Belgium from a small town in New Zealand.
When I was growing up in NZ it was common to see only one hospital in each city, with the exception of a few bigger cities like Auckland which has three and this makes sense given its population is over one million. However, in Ghent, the city I now live in, a city of only 300,000 people, there are a whopping four large hospitals each with the full catalogue of services and specialists that you would expect in any large hospital.
In addition, Ghent also has 6 health centres, each with numerous doctors and other specialists on top of the already large number of general doctors and other specialists practising in their own clinics around the city. And if that was not enough, there are also night doctors, dentists and pharmacies and if you really are stuck, it is only a short trip to another city close by, which like Ghent has yet more hospitals and specialists there.
This as you can imagine was vastly different from what I experienced growing up, yet is the norm for people here in Europe. Most do not even seem to question that such access to health care is a warning sign for humanity. The healthcare here is fantastic, no question, in fact it is excellent and I am not criticising this in any way, but what I am asking is: why do we need such a large range of healthcare services just to function as a society?
Naturally, there were a number of questions that came flooding in when I realised the extent of health care here in Ghent and Belgium in general. Firstly, was the question of how so many health specialists could compete for business!? And how all these hospitals were able to fill beds and afford to keep themselves running. Obviously with the large numbers of people using these facilities, there must be a demand for so many to begin with, for them to even have been built. And hence my next question; if the demand is so high, there must be a high level of sickness, disease or illness within the community to justify such a demand, so is this a sign that this society is sicker than it looks?
I walk around Ghent and I see that most people are not bandaged up, on crutches or having to be wheeled round in wheel chairs. No, on the surface society seems to be doing well. But one of the things that struck me when I first came here was the incredibly high number of pharmacies. There is one on almost every street! All with a full range of basic and specific drugs and medications available for use. And again, if so many pharmacies are able to not only survive but do well in one single city, then there must be a high demand for them and that means a high demand for drugs, given that with so many pharmacies, a single pharmacy is serving only a fraction of the population.
It makes me wonder: if these medical facilities were not there in the many and varied ways in which they currently are, would we be able to cope? The evidence of so much illness and so much disease would be unavoidable and perhaps in such a state we could not hide the fact that as a race we are very sick.
I have observed that there is very little in modern-day life, with so many technological advances, that ought to be making us sick by circumstance alone. By this I mean that we have so many tools at our disposal to make life so much more physically supportive than was available even 50 years ago and because of this we should be less sick. Yet it is apparent there is more, yes more, sickness now than there was back when my parents were my age and this is not just true by statistics alone but also in the fact that so much has changed even in the twenty years since I was born. I can remember going to the doctor and talking about anything and everything, and yet feeling like the doctor was not rushed off his feet with patients to treat, nor overwhelmed by the ways of the system, or by complications that seemed to only get worse and not truly better, or that the health budget of the nation was bursting at the seams like it is today. Nowadays it feels like doctors and health systems are just getting by and one day they may not be able to cope, especially if we keep getting sicker.
So, why are we getting sicker when today we can have so much at our finger tips, literally to the point where we can order a taxi, a pizza and search the web on anything and everything, all from the ease of our phone!?
What if the downward trend in our health is related to our way of living? The two are not exclusive, as what we do more than anything is to live life. Recently, I have become more aware of the importance of self-responsibility in life and how it is not common for us to live much, if any, true responsibility for the quality of our well-being. There is a ‘life happened, fix me up’ mentality that is common in society, and I am starting to question whether it is this approach to life that is the cause of our worrying health trends.
This is indeed a much needed topic for us all to consider, for there is clearly more to living truly well and healthy than just mere function, as we are very good at restoring function in healthcare but clearly the overall state of our health is not great. Perhaps it’s time to take off the layers that have us believe that our state of health is ‘ok’ and start to question whether there is more to how we are living than would otherwise meet the eye.
Without the wonderful care of modern medicine, we would be looking and feeling a lot sicker… medicine is doing a great job, but it is also starting to ail and fail, because of the increasing burdens we are placing on it. It is propping us all up to continue living our unhealthy ways, patching us up and allowing us to go back out there and continue doing what made us ill in the first place, and protecting us from the full consequences of our choices. But we cannot continue like this forever…
Perhaps it is time for us to start taking responsibility for our choices and to live in a way that keeps us largely healthy and well, thus reducing the burden on our health care systems.