Life & Culture

Welcome to the column that puts YOUR health first


Welcome to the first edition of Shot in the Arm, our monthly look at health. On this page I’m planning to write about everything from abscesses to zinc deficiency, and from the latest medical breakthroughs to the state of the NHS.

If you’re wondering why there’s a need for this information, well it’s something that affects us all. Especially us. You don’t have to be a doctor to diagnose a strong tendency to hypochondria among Jewish people. In films such as Hannah and Her Sisters, Hollywood’s most famous Jew, Woody Allen, invested his own on-screen persona with a morbid fear of illness, and we all laughed heartily because we recognised ourselves.

That’s definitely not the reason why so many in our community are doctors and dentists, but it is a happy coincidence that we can run through our symptoms with the person sitting next to us in shul.

I’ve always felt great empathy with Allen’s neurotic alter-egos. When I get a cold I always assume it’s pneumonia, if it’s tummy ache I start googling cancers of the digestive tract. Luckily for me I’ve been able to utilise this obsession in newspaper health pages, and the BBC even let me loose on a range of science TV programmes, from Watchdog Healthcheck to Health: Truth or Scare.

Health doesn’t just mean illnesses, injuries and treatments. It’s also about the growing science of wellbeing that encompasses everything from going easy on the cholent to doing an Iron Man challenge to raise money for a favourite charity.

This page is for you, but it also needs your input. I want to know about your health and medical news, your favourite medic, your questions and suggestions about how health in the broadest sense is affecting us and what we are doing to improve it. Contact me at Zei Gesund!

Cancer Breakthrough?

l Not only is bowel cancer the second most deadly form of the disease worldwide, but it is also twice as common in those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage as the population at large.

So when several newspapers excitedly reported this week that an immunotherapy drug said to “melt away” some bowel cancers was being welcomed as a “game changer” by leading doctors, it sounded like good news for Jewish patients. The world’s largest oncology conference in Chicago heard that pembrolizumab was found to have completely eradicated any sign of tumours in more than half the patients taking part in a study led by six British research hospitals.

While welcoming the study as “very interesting”, oncologist Professor Daniel Hochhauser urges caution, emphasising that the number of patients followed was relatively small, and the treatment is only effective in patients with a very specific genetic make-up.

Prof Hochhauser, an adviser to Chai Cancer Care, points to another much larger and longer term study using two other immunotherapy drugs on cancers with similar genetic profiles, reported in the latest edition of leading periodical The New England Journal of Medicine. For 68 per cent of patients, all cancer was eradicated, and two years later none had recurred. With the phlegmatic realism of an experienced cancer doctor he says that taken together these studies are good news, if no magic bullet, confirming that for a certain patients it may eventually mean being able to avoid either chemotherapy or surgery and “it may well reduce the risk of the cancer coming back”.

How to save the NHS? Bring back sister!

l As the much-loved National Health Service approaches its 76th birthday, it’s frequently reported to be in a parlous state. With waiting lists out of control, discontent among patients and staff, and chronic underfunding, it’s a running sore of complaint and a constant source of debate.

Now that the chances of a Labour government are looking increasingly high, many of us will be hoping that the party’s presumptive health and social care secretary Wes Streeting will have some thoughts about how to sort out the mess. He could do well to have a look at Patients First: How to Save the NHS (Hawksmoor Publishing £12.99), a slim volume by one of the Jewish community’s most distinguished doctors.

Lord Leslie Turnberg, who was president of the Royal College of Physicians among numerous other senior posts, spoke to a packed-out room at South Hampstead Synagogue in June. In his book he writes that despite our misgivings about the NHS, we should remember “the innumerable ways in which patients benefit every day from high-quality expert care for much of the time”.

He sets out a treatment plan that is humane and people-centred, skewering past governments’ misguided obsession with reorganisation as expensive and distracting. To his audience in Hampstead, he singled out the market-driven changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher for particular venom.

He writes that while hospitals are run directly by the NHS, the care system is largely private and paid for by local authorities, while GPs come under a different system again. He regards this discrepancy as both confusing and inefficient, recommending a better deal for carers, a louder voice for hospital doctors (as opposed to administrators) and the re-introduction of clinical “firms”, which would see patients as a multi-discipline team on the wards thus ensuring continuity of care. He also calls for the re-establishment of the post of ward sister, giving them the authority and pay to reflect their importance. There is much, much more. Apparently he has given Mr Streeting a copy of this clear and practical book. Let’s hope he reads it.

Oral hygiene gets hip

l If you get bored of the predictably minty taste of toothpaste, how about brushing with Gin Tonic + Persimmon for a change? That’s one of six novel flavours in brightly coloured tubes offered by the Swiss oral hygiene brand Curaprox.

But cheeky innovation doesn’t stop at gourmet toothpaste, the label’s eye-catching collection of toothbrushes has a distinctive designer look that sets them apart from the UK market leaders.

Though the brushes tend to the soft side, Curaprox products  have their fans in the dental profession. Dentist Dr Noémie Attal is one. She says they are more expensive than other brands, but last longer. Attal, who has practised in London and Paris, says patients share her love of the interdental brush kits with interchangeable refills, meaning less plastic waste.

While Curaprox is popular in Europe, in the UK it only has six per cent of the market. Manufacturer Curaden is known for dental education and its latest promotional strategy is a new book, The Gentle Guide to Oral Health and Human Happiness, which can be downloaded for free. Aimed primarily at professionals, it uses accessible language to set out a bold vision for improving preventative dentistry, looking at the connection between oral and overall health – in particular links with heart disease and dementia, and introducing the idea that that just like gut biome, mouth biome is key to our wellbeing. Some of this may sound academic to people struggling to find an NHS dentist, but Dr Attal welcomes the book. It is, she says, “a good reminder that we, the dentists, have an essential role in prevention”. As for the Gin Tonic + Persimmon toothpaste, she’s not so keen, “I have tried, I just don’t understand…”

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