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Hi, this is Gerry, and this is my News Digest for Friday 22nd September, 2017. I’m recording this show in Zurich because I’m visiting Switzerland. It’s actually good to get away from the news in Britain with the endless Brexit story. When one gets away, one realises that Brexit is not dominating the news everywhere. In the UK, though, we are still trying to understand exactly what’s involved in leaving . Each round of negotiations in Brussels is analysed in terms of what was talked about, what was said at the press conferences and what the body language looked like. Before the referendum the Eurosceptics used to be the ones making the most noise , now it’s the Remainers who are doing the shouting. The Labour Party is also moving to a position where it’s more likely to  be causing problems for the government in parliament. But let’s talk about something different. On today’s show some more thoughts about social change and modern medicine.
In my last podcast I was speaking about different anniversaries – there seem to be so many this year. At the end I asked you about the biggest changes to our world that you have experienced in your lifetime. You sent interesting answers to my question. Two themes struck me. The first was how technology is changing our lives – how it’s changed the way we communicate with each other, and how we go about solving problems, including the way we learn things. The other theme was changes in the relations between generations. The job of parenting  seems to have changed. Perhaps we take it more seriously these days. Fathers are certainly more involved in  looking after young children than they were 50 years ago. Children, at least in the UK or the USA get a lot more attention than they used to. They’re not sent outside to play until it’s time for their next meal. Their lives are much more organised and monitored . However, although today’s parents may not let their children wander  physically, they may not have much of an idea about what they’re doing when they’re off into virtual worlds after school these days. I suppose children have always tried to get a bit of freedom from their parents in one way or another.
Do you use a fitness tracker? I ask this because these electronic devices  that you typically wear on your wrist  and which measure your physical activity seem to be very popular again, at least where I live. When they first came onto the market there was a lot of publicity about them but I had the impression that they were “a bit of a passing fancy ”, as we say: a temporary fashion. But perhaps now devices like this are here to stay. In the West we’re very concerned about our health, of course. There’s a certain paradox here. It was first formulated by a Welsh doctor in 1971. He said that “the availability of good medical care tends to vary inversely  with the need for it within the population served.” We in the West have excellent life expectancy . We are well nourished , well housed and have relatively comfortable lives, but we still spend so much more on our health in contrast to those areas of the world with the greatest need.
A journalist that I enjoy reading is a Scottish family doctor (or GP  as we call them) called Margaret McCartney. She’s very sceptical about a lot of medical research, and she’s suspicious of  the pharmaceutical industry. She recently wrote about an apparent epidemic of thyroid  cancer in South Korea. The truth of the matter is that the South Korean health service has started MRI screening for this kind of cancer and is now detecting  the cancer at a much earlier stage than before. Sounds good, doesn’t it? However, the death rate from thyroid cancer there has not been reduced despite this early diagnosis and treatment. Dr McCartney’s point is that we can detect many conditions such as cancers but we don’t know how many of these cases will actually develop into serious illnesses. Meanwhile there are thousands of South Koreans who have now had their thyroid glands removed  and are on expensive medication for the rest of their lives, perhaps without this being necessary. Screening and testing are procedures not without risk, not to mention costs.
Coming back to fitness trackers, researchers at Stanford University in California measured the efficiency of these devices recently and discovered that they are OK at measuring your movements and your heart rate but they are pretty  inaccurate at measuring the energy you use. Not every step is the same – I just climbed a mountain and I can tell you that climbing 800 metres is very different from walking 800 metres! So linking  the number of calories you eat to the number of steps the fitness tracker records is not reliable. Or think about this: if a doctor tells you to eat less and exercise more, the message is reasonably clear. You know what you should do. But what happens if the doctor tells you that but also gives you a pill for you to take to reduce your cholesterol and keep your heart healthy? Will you think that you can now, thanks to the pill, eat another doughnut  instead of going for a walk? Or what happens if your fitness tracker tells you that you have done 10,000 steps for the day? Will you still reduce what you eat?
You can send me your ideas via the PodClub website (podclub.ch) or on Twitter. You can find me under the address @Gerrypod. Don’t forget that the PodClub app not only allows you to listen to our podcasts but also provides you with some help to extend your vocabulary. I’ll be back with my next News Digest on October 20th. Till then thanks for listening, and take care!