Medicine

"Disease Prestige" Is A Thing, And It Could Be Affecting Your Healthcare

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When you're sick, the last thing on your mind is how prestigious your doctor thinks your illness is. But it turns out that even diseases have a hierarchy, and some really are considered more prestigious than others. In fact, researchers think that those opinions can subtly influence care and doctors' priorities.

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Just How Fancy Is Your Disease?

What is a prestigious disease? In short, probably something you don't want to get: in their recent review, authors Dag Album, Lars E.F. Johannessen, and Erik B. Rasmussen found that prestigious diseases, as ranked by doctors, were often high-risk, intense illnesses including leukemia and brain tumors. In essence, as a recent NY Mag article explains, these are the conditions that help doctors look good, and assume the role of the heroic lifesaver to their patients. The not-as-prestigious diseases? They included chronic conditions without easy cures, such as fibromyalgia and depression.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of a brain tumor

Delving into the Research

The review by Album & co compared results from 3 different survey studies of disease prestige--conducted in Norway in 1990, 2002, and 2014. Norwegian physicians were asked to rate 38 different diseases on a scale of 1 to 9, according to how much prestige they believed others in the healthcare field would feel each had. The results were remarkably consistent: in all 3 surveys, leukemia, brain tumors, and myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) were awarded the highest prestige honors. Meanwhile, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and hepatocirrhosis (a degenerative liver disease) were awarded the lowest prestige.

The only major move turned out to be apoplexy, or brain stroke, which moved in prestige from a ranking of 33 to 29 to 23 over the course of the 3 surveys.

The highest prestige diseases, the article explains, were those acute, potentially deadly illnesses that affected essential organs like the heart and brain. They were also often treated with new technology, had speedy recoveries, and often connected to younger patients who made a relatively full recovery.

Understanding just how doctors view diseases has important implications--not only could it affect students' choices of medical specialties, but it could even affect how doctors unconsciously prioritize treatment in hospitals, such as in intensive care units. Who knew diseases could have (subconscious) rankings?

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