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Professor Tracey McDonald AM PhD FACN, National Lead Clinician: Ageing, 2014

Public opinion that medical science will solve all ills, even before they occur, has created false expectations about what health care should entail and reasonably deliver. Clinicians are often expected to work magic to keep their patients healthy and well and sometimes even when those patients show no interest in contributing to their own best interests.

The big news is, magic is not a part of the health care equation. As clinicians, we need to be realistic about our promises to those we treat and support, and we need to manage their expectations. As individuals, we need to take care of ourselves to maintain healthy bodies and minds that will help us recover from disease and trauma.

‘Magic pills’ to cure infections

Infection control is an excellent example of unrealistic public expectations. Even in the early 1900s, untreated infections were a common and frightening cause of illness and death. Pneumonia took many months to get over – if it didn’t kill you first.

Antibiotics changed all that in the first half of the 20th century. If we were correctly diagnosed and prescribed the right antibiotic, we’d feel better within a few days. We could avoid serious lingering effects, such as limb amputation, permanent disfiguration or brain damage, and we healed quickly compared with nature’s best efforts.

Today, an infection and a trip to the doctor comes with the belief that we will be cured within a few days or weeks. If that doesn’t happen, the practitioner is seen as incompetent or even cruel for not prescribing us those ‘magic pills’.

Health service manager attitudes have also changed, and their expectations regarding clinician efficiency include a much shorter treatment time in hospital than what may really be needed.

Instant happiness with mood-altering drugs?

Mood-altering medications have also changed public expectations of achieving happiness despite the rigours of life and consequences of dubious choices. The increasing prevalence of psychiatric conditions being treated with psychotropics extends across the lifespan, and particularly among young adults.

These drugs, if prescribed appropriately and taken as directed, can achieve marvellous improvements in mood. But for those who have idiosyncratic reactions, the damage can be devastating. The heart-wrenching blogs of those taking psychotropic drugs reveal the desperation of people longing to be happy, and their distress when drugs are not working as expected.

Key to a healthy life

The key to successfully preventing health breakdown and recovering from disease and trauma largely lies within individuals and how we care for ourselves and those depending on us.

Apart from the benefits we now enjoy from advances in nutrition, sanitation, personal hygiene, infection control and environmental safety, our bodies behave the same as they did centuries ago. It may sound boring, but to work well, our bodies and minds need good nutrition and hydration, hygiene, sleep, contentment and exercise. Try to avoid illness and trauma first, then, it unsuccessful, conservative treatment allowing time for the body to overcome minor illnesses, and only then when necessary seek pharma solutions promising ‘fast and effective relief’.

Last updated 18/11/2019
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