The paradox of health

N Engl J Med. 1988 Feb 18;318(7):414-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198802183180705.


Although the collective health of the nation has improved dramatically in the past 30 years, surveys reveal declining satisfaction with personal health during the same period. Increasingly, respondents report greater numbers of disturbing somatic symptoms, more disability, and more feelings of general illness. Four factors contribute to the discrepancy between the objective and subjective states of health. First, advances in medical care have lowered the mortality rate of acute infectious diseases, resulting in a comparatively increased prevalence of chronic and degenerative disorders. Second, society's heightened consciousness of health has led to greater self-scrutiny and an amplified awareness of bodily symptoms and feelings of illness. Third, the widespread commercialization of health and the increasing focus on health issues in the media have created a climate of apprehension, insecurity, and alarm about disease. Finally, the progressive medicalization of daily life has brought unrealistic expectations of cure that make untreatable infirmities and unavoidable ailments seem even worse. Physicians should become more aware of these paradoxical consequences of medical progress so that they do not inadvertently contribute to a rising public dissatisfaction with medicine and medical care.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health*
  • Health Status*
  • Health*
  • Marketing of Health Services / trends
  • Mass Media
  • Physician's Role
  • Self Concept
  • United States