Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America is an expose against the dental care system in America, which leaves a sizable minority of Americans without care, and with awful toothaches and infections. The author exposes how dentist associations have fought to keep the equivalent of nurse practitioners banned while allowing Medicaid coverage for dental work to be pretty much useless since few dentists take Medicaid patients at all, and most only a few.
The book is somewhat repetitive and often overly sensational but does a good job of exposing a sad corner of America.
Be patient if you decide to pick up The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids–and the Kids We Have. It starts slowly, describing standard pregnancy genetic testing techniques that seem mundane — but it ratchets up to much more technically complex and ethically challenging techniques, from preimplantation genetic diagnosis to systematically screening parents for potentially devastating genes. The author does not shy away from discussing how genetic testing is linked to abortions or how to imagine a world in which particular disabilities have become very rare. While definitely not a book to recommend to a pregnant woman, it’s a great way to think about the choices to make as a prospective parent and as a society.
Written by a physician, Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop exposes how shoddy research, a laudable quest to treat pain better, and especially features of the health care system that encourage physicians to acquiesce to patients’ requests and above all get them out of the door combined to overprescribe opioids and create millions of addicts. It’s a sobering story. Besides better education for physicians, it seems that relatively simple measures such as a universal prescription registry (alas implemented state by state) would help, but only a minority of physicians bother to check it…
If you remember the 80s and early 90s when healthy young men would suddenly turn into skeletons and die you will read How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS with sadness for all who died and interest for how small groups of dedicated activists pushed the government and the medical establishment to action and changed the way drug research is conducted while around them their friends and they themselves sickened and died. The story focuses on the New York groups ACT UP and TAG, and refers only briefly to other groups within the country, which is frustrating at times, but the story mixes the personal, intimate experiences of the author and the other actors with the larger narrative in a very effective manner. The later part of the book descends into the internal power struggles of the activist groups, which are just as boring as one would expect, but you can stop reading at any time.
If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body seems to be innocently structured as a series of questions and answers about our bodies (e.g. “How much sleep do I need?”) and indeed some question-answer pairs are perfectly short and sweet. But other questions are just setups for occasionally lengthy and usually passionate rants against fad diets, supplements, energy drinks, and irrational fears of vaccines and cell phones. If you suspect that the food industry and the medical field may not have your best interests at heart, read this book, which is written by a physician turned journalist.
A Gambler’s Anatomy is certainly different, starring a shadowy backgammon player who plays high-stakes games with rich men (all men) around the world and winds up needing surgery for a threatening brain tumor. We visit Singapore, Berlin, Berkeley. We revisit the hero’s strange childhood and the strange business ventures of his childhood friend. But as exciting as gambling and neurosurgery can be, the story never crystallized into a satisfying whole for me, just a string of occasionally tiresome adventures.
The Gene: An Intimate History is a masterful summary of the history of genetics, delicately tied together by the sad history of mental illness in the author’s family.
Although parts of the history of genetics are well known (including the sad story of Carrie Buck at the height of the eugenics movement) the author injects small and delightful details. I did not know that Mendel failed his teacher-certification exam, for instance. Or that 901 mice had their tails excised in an effort to prove that acquired characteristics could not be passed on (poor mice, it seems so obvious today, thanks to them).
The last few chapters discuss, carefully, gene therapy and its risks, making it very clear that, since genes rarely equal diseases, it’s a delicate business and not the simple matching game that we wish it were.