A major issue in economics certainly is how individuals cope with information. Much information is uncertain, so one’s ability to make rational decisions based on irrational information is a fascinating one. Predicting the future may be viewed as best kept as the bastion of astrologers such as Mystic Meg, but the likelihood of future outcomes is clearly of interest in the insurance industry. These decisions are not only helpful for people at an individual basis, but also hopefully useful for planning, rather than predicting, what is best for the population at large in future.
Angelina Jolie did not have cancer, but, in fact, like many women with breast cancer mutations, she had the radical surgery to lower her risk. She, at the age of 37, has described her decision as “My Medical Choice,” in an op-ed in the New York Times. She carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which gives her an 87% risk of developing breast cancer at some point in her life. The abnormal gene also increases her risk of getting ovarian cancer, a typically aggressive disease, by 50%. To counteract those odds, Jolie wrote that she decided to have both her breasts removed. In 2010, Australian scientists found that women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations who chose to have preventive mastectomies did not develop breast cancer over the three-year follow-up. Since the genetic abnormalities increase the risk of ovarian cancer, women who had their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed also dramatically lowered their risk of developing ovarian or breast cancers. The ability of medicine to predict one day, with relative certainty, the likelihood to develop certain conditions is an intriguing way, and leaves the open the possibility of ‘personalised medicine’ on the basis of your own individual information. If you think the NHS is already overstretched, with A&E closures contributing to the ‘crisis’ in emergency health provision, then footing a bill for personalised medicine might be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. The idea that one day you can predict the likelihood of a person developing multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s Disease still intrigues neurologists.
This furthermore presents formidable challenges for the law. In recent years, governments have been embracing policies that ‘nudge’ citizens into making decisions that are better for their own health and welfare, including our own Government which has decided to ‘mutualise’ its own ‘Nudge Unit’. The European Commission has embraced this ‘libertarian paternalism’ in its review of the Tobacco Products Directive. Various people has recently explained that by introducing measures such as plain packaging and display bans, the European Union may be able to ‘nudge’ people into smoking less, whilst preserving their right to choose. After having relied on the assumption that governments can only change people’s behaviour through rules and regulations, policy makers seem ready to design polices that better reflect how people really behave. Inspired by “libertarian paternalism,” the nudge approach suggests that the goal of public policy should be to steer citizens towards making positive decisions as individuals and for society while preserving individual choice.
It’s likely that a ‘one glove fits all’ policy is not going to work. About a decade ago, I was surrounded in my day job by individuals with hepatic cirrhosis, requiring abdominal paracentesis to tap away fluid from their tummies. And yet being confronted with people yellow due to the build-up of bilirubin did not deter me one jot from being a card-carrying alcohol. I am not over seventy months in recovery from alcohol misuse, so this aspect of how people make decisions before being addicted intrigues me. I think that people genuinely in addiction ‘can’t say stop’, as they don’t have an off-switch; they lack insight, and are in denial, mostly, I feel from personal experience.
It’s also clear that there is a long-list of medical problems that cause someone to present to an A&E department aside from alcohol, such as a sore-throat, faint, dislocated shoulder, and so on. But alcohol is undeniably a big issue, so the question is a sobering one, pardon the pun. To what extent can we ‘nudge’ people out of alcohol-related illness? Commenting on the report out today from the College of Emergency Medicine, that highlights the pressures that Accident and Emergency (A&E) wards are under, Dr John Middleton, Vice President for Policy at the Faculty of Public Health, said:
“We quite rightly have high expectations of doctors and nurses working in emergency medicine, so it’s only fair that they get the support they need to do their jobs safely and well. One way to reduce the burden on Accident and Emergency (A&E) wards would be to tackle the reasons why people are admitted in the first place: in particular, alcohol. Given that drink related violence accounts for over one million A&E visits every year, we urgently need the government to be bold and introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. That would reduce the burden on overstretched hospitals and society as a whole.”
Nobody likes assessing risk, especially the consequences of an addict picking up/using again are potentially catastrophic even if in probability terms theoretically infinitesimally low. People who know about Taleb’s “Black Swan” work will know this well. And assessing harm has led others to be blasted in the public arena previously, for example Prof David Nutt who once compared the dangers of horse riding to the dangers presented by the major drugs of abuse. At a time when both the medical and legal professions at least think there should be an open debate about having ‘another look’ at the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), hopefully a public can welcome a mature debate on this.
Even today, the news reports that introducing a law to force cyclists to wear helmets may not reduce the number of hospital admissions for cycling-related head injuries. Researchers said that while helmets reduce head injuries and should be encouraged, the decrease in hospital admissions in Canada, where the law is in place in some regions, seems to have been “minimal”. The authors examined data concerning all 66,000 cycling-related injuries in Canada between 1994 and 2008 – 30% of which were head injuries. Writing in the British Medical Journal, the authors noted a substantial fall in the rate of hospital admissions among young people, particularly in regions where helmet legislation was in place, but they said that the fall was not found to be statistically significant.
I suppose all political parties desire people with capacity to make decisions about their own lifestyle and healthcare, very much in keeping with the ‘no decision about me without me’ philosophy currently in vogue. If push came to shove, if I could predict the future of my health, would I fundamentally change my behaviour? Probably within reason, but the only thing which I am pretty certain about is having another alcoholic drink may lead to a pattern of behaviour that will ultimately kill me.