Chronic disease is clearly a pressing issue in our current world. Nearly a half of all American Citizens have at least one chronic health condition. I am one of those citizens, and I have been for nearly eight years. Although some chronic illnesses can be prevented, my personal experience has been with the diseases that are misunderstood, under-researched, and completely unavoidable - autoimmune diseases. Therefore, instead of focusing this time on how we can prevent the diseases that can be prevented, I am going to talk about how we can take better initiative to care for patients with the misunderstood and unavoidable.
When I was ten years old, I first began experiencing symptoms of what we would later find out was Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a relatively well-known and common chronic illness. The problem is, it took over seven years after the first presentation of my symptoms before I was diagnosed and could begin treatment. Because I did not have a classic presentation of symptoms, doctors always blamed my abdominal pain on food intolerances or a low pain tolerance. Even when I first began seeing my gastroenterologist, he dismissed my symptoms and told me that there was nothing wrong. As it turns out, I have a rare form of IBD in which symptoms present differently than in the more common types. If just one of my doctors had understood that this illness presents with irregular symptoms, I would have been spared from years of abdominal pain, weight loss, malnutrition, and many other debilitating symptoms.
I tell you all of this, because I believe that too many healthcare professionals have become comfortable in their level of expertise. They have settled with the current information available and have stopped searching for better. Young people with chronic illness are becoming more and more common, so for the sake of the upcoming generation, it is vital that healthcare professionals take initiative and begin the research. Medical advancements are always evolving. Autoimmune diseases have a base cause, but the medical community has settled before the true cause has been found. How are treatments expected to excel if they have not taken into account the true cause of the symptoms? Genome research as well as environmental research are the future of, not necessarily preventing chronic illness, but targeting the cause of symptoms before they become debilitating. If we are able to understand the presentation of symptoms, know what tests to run, and have a course of treatment established, diagnosis times will become drastically decreased, and patients will be able to return to their lives at a faster rate. In our society, chronic illnesses themselves are not the issue, it is instead the fact that these illnesses remain unmanaged. Patients with chronic illness, especially those with undiagnosed illness, are often referred from
specialist to specialist because many doctors find it discouraging to treat patients who do not improve with a simple fix. For far too long, uncommon illnesses have been avoided, rather than welcomed as a challenge. Acceptance of these challenges will change our world for the better. Because of the current avoidance of misunderstood illnesses, many young people are living with a much lower quality of life than they deserve. They face uncertainty everyday as they watch their bodies deteriorate because they haven’t been provided with proper treatment. Students are forced to dropout of high school and college because their illnesses interfere with their daily lives. This is not because their illnesses are uncontrollable, it’s because their doctors have provided them with far too little.
In order for us to see improvement in the lives of those with chronic illness, we need to begin with the foundation. First, awareness must be raised. It continues to astonish me how little awareness the most common of diseases have. Awareness in the medical community is what creates the interest that sparks researchers to develop research projects. Awareness in our personal communities is what creates the funding for these studies. Funded research projects will lead to new discoveries of both causes, and treatments which will impact the lives of millions. I do not believe that chronic illness will ever be fully preventable, but I do believe that we have the power to diminish the symptoms of those living with chronic illness, and create a world where chronic illness is no longer something that makes us weaker, but something that makes us stronger.