Politically correct, but medically unsound?

Star Tribune, February 21, 2001

By Maura Lerner

Not only is there no scientific justification for framing health problems as matters of social injustice, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist contends, it also doesn’t help those who are supposed to be helped by such efforts—the poor and the disenfranchised.

Is political correctness making people sick?

Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist from Washington, D.C., believes that it does or, at least, that it keeps them from the care they need.

She’s written a new book, “PC, M.D., How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine,” to expose what she calls a misguided effort to blame the health problems of the poor and disenfranchised on injustice and discrimination.

Satel, the featured speaker today at a Minneapolis luncheon sponsored by the Center of the American Experiment, has been derided by critic Ivan Oransky in Salon magazine as a “conservative ideologue in a doctor’s white coat.”

However, she argues that liberal activists—she calls them “indoctrinologists”—have recklessly promoted such ideas that racism causes high blood pressure among blacks and that women and members of minority groups have been unfairly excluded from medical research.

Neither is supported by the facts, she said, but both have attained the status of urban myth.

“Good public health is being gradually overshadowed by what I call the politicized public health, the folks who are trying to use health as a vehicle for their own social goals,” she said in an interview. In the process, she said, they undermine genuine efforts to improve the health of women, minorities and the poor.

“PC medicine puts ideology before patients,” she writes.

Satel doesn’t dispute that “society’s sickest people tend also to be among its poorest and most disenfranchised.” But she said that’s a problem of poorer access to doctors and treatments—not discrimination by the medical profession.

The activists want to attack the problem by “redesigning society,” she writes, urging global solutions, such as “the redistribution of wealth.”

But they ignore more practical solutions to help people take responsibility for their own health, such as stopping smoking, eating healthier diets and practicing safe sex, she said.

While critics say she exaggerates the problem, Satel has singled out several examples to illustrate her point:

  • In 1998, a public-health professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., offered five suggestions for curbing the AIDS epidemic: limiting the power of corporations, capping salaries of chief executives, eliminating corporate subsidies, banning corporation contributions to politicians and strengthening labor unions. “Doctors like me, on the other hand, who expect their addicted patients to stop using drugs and to start using condoms . . . are accused of blaming the victim,” Satel said.
  • In South Carolina, activists blocked an effort to force crack-addicted pregnant women into treatment, saying it infringed on their rights. “I’m not really interested in these folks being incarcerated . . . but it’s a great way to get them into treatment,” Satel said.
  • The growing popularity of feminist and “multicultural counseling,” which treats discrimination as the cause of psychological problems. “It’s not about understanding yourself; it’s about blaming and externalizing your problems,” Satel said.