Most people don’t especially like to think about being sick if they can avoid it. So why did we decide to produce a special medical issue of this magazine? Because if you want to understand American society today, you have to understand health care. America doesn’t just spend enormously on health care—more than any other country, in fact—America runs on health care. Today, health-care spending amounts to 17 percent of GDP, and at the current growth rate, it could reach 34 percent by 2040. At the same time, one in eight Americans works in the health sector. “It’s what’s replaced manufacturing,” the labor economist Anthony Carnevale told National Public Radio in 2012.
But unlike manufacturing, the economies that crop up around our bodies and their well-being are often hugely inefficient, convoluted, unproductive, or downright weird. Two stories in this issue explore some of the more unsettling developments in modern medicine: that of the rise of the black-market organ trade (“The Organ Detective,” by Ethan Watters) and, in a very different vein, that of one former manufacturing town’s transition from making textiles to serving as a source of tissue samples for biotechnology research (Amanda Wilson’s “Sequenced in the U.S.A.”).
In three stories, we look at how culture shapes health and how health shapes culture. Maggie Gram writes about how a group of public health officials has found a way to use some of the biggest TV screenwriters in Hollywood to get its messages out—by offering overworked writers free consulting on medical plotlines (“Can You Spot the Health Propaganda?”). Then the editor of our books section, Graeme Wood, writes about how screenwriters and other creators of culture can unknowingly and drastically affect our mental health (“Caught in a Trap”). And Richard McNally, a professor and the director of clinical training at Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry, offers up five studies to remind people who deploy “trigger warnings”—as some college professors are now doing on class syllabi, and many writers are doing online—that they may do more damage than good.
Speaking of mental health, culture, and downright weird developments, Taffy Brodesser-Akner explores the serious proposition that Botox may be an effective remedy for depression. And Daniel Duane and Bonnie Tsui write about issues of class and culture in the attempt to stay fit (“How the Other Half Lifts” and “Bathing Suits Over Baghdad”).
Finally, we have two doctors who take us inside efforts to improve health care within the medical profession. But both writers—surgeon Wen Shen and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar—weave cautionary tales that remind us that efforts to make improvements may not always create improvements. For these stories, see “Bloody Nice” and “Through a CT Scan, Darkly.”
This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue ofPacific Standardas “Your Medical Issue.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.