Will Society Adapt? When? How?

Just over 2 years ago, October 2019, I wrote Society and Chronic Health Conditions. In that article I proposed that as a species we understand three states of health: terminal, curable and healthy. I suggested we are not yet accepting the new, fourth state: chronic illness.

In talking about this situation with a friend recently, I realised my generation is effectively the first generation of this new health state. No wonder we are struggling as a species to adapt. It is all so new. Historically most of us would have died or been cured: there was very little “in-between”. Now we have that in-between, but the powers that be don’t like it. Because that in-between costs money. It doesn’t fit the capitalist dynamic. We are not the only generation: my children are now in their forties and many conditions are not age specific. We are just the first of any number due to scientific advances.

There are many factors at play here. More advanced science. Longer life expectancy. Horrifically rapid population growth (see graph further down) over the last century. Now we are being told by certain theorists we need to increase the birth rate to support society, while that will further degrade our environment. It will also increase the number of people requiring some form of assistance and support. I’m not looking at environmental impacts in this article, but it is something that impacts all of us because chemicals and damage to the environment may well be contributing to health issues in a broader sense. There are many reference and source links (underlined or blue, depending on your device) in this article, so be warned! (Edited 23/01/2022 Since writing this I have looked at environmental impacts in Underlying Conditions)

Science and medicine have advanced in leaps and bounds in the last 100 years particularly. People who would have died 100, 200, 300 or more years ago now can be saved by medical or surgical intervention. We may live the remainder of our lives physically disabled (for example in a wheelchair after a car accident) or we may live with a chronic condition (or conditions) as I do, those conditions held in check or managed by modern medications.

Not only has medicine and surgery advanced, it has improved. Let’s look at knee replacement (because I’ve had one of them, so have patient experience). The first Total Knee Replacement was performed as recently as 1968, believe it or not. However, a German surgeon began the journey when he implanted primitive hinge joints made of ivory in 1860. My knee is titanium, a far cry from ivory.

Medications have been developed and are continuously advancing. Biologics have seen expansive growth since human recombinant insulin was approved in 1982.

As a result of these innovations, developments and advancements the reality is we NOW have more and more people living life with permanent (chronic) health complications than ever before in human history. I’m not terminal: neither am I curable. Thousands of people are in the same situation and the number, the percentage of the population, is growing. in 2017-18, 47% of Australians had one or more of only 10 selected chronic conditions.

Generally incurable and ongoing, chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the total population of this country. By 2020, that number is projected to grow to an estimated 157 million, with 81 million having multiple conditions.

Source: About Chronic Diseases

The reality is we often reach the point of needing some form of support to live at some stage of our life. In Australia there has been much discussion of late about the Disability Support Pension (DSP) and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). People are being rejected or having their support budgets reduced/cut.

The government complains it is just too expensive to provide the supports and pensions. I could suggest if there was less pork barrelling going on there would be more money available, but I digress.


The population of the world has grown from 1.65 billion in 1900 to 7.7 billion in 2019. More than 40% in at least two countries have chronic health conditions – I haven’t been able to source a global figure, but suggest it would be similar.

So what did humans think was going to happen? That the disabled and chronically ill could live on air and water? Many of us are like me, still working, paying our own way, essentially looking after ourselves – for the moment. Even for us, our conditions are often degenerative and progressive: our self-sufficiency may have a time limit. Or the conditions can be decidedly unpredictable: good one day, unable to function the next. Not only that, some of our treatments are not cheap. Government’s choice, society’s choice, is either fund the expensive treatments that keep us as healthy as possible, or look after us when we deteriorate on cheaper but less effective medications.

Or adopt the American style health system where only the rich can afford the good treatments.

‘Profit over death’: millions of American diabetics struggle to afford insulin


I’ll never forget the case of the the 51 year-old who won the lottery so could finally afford to go to the doctor. He died.

Among his other priorities, Savastano, who couldn’t afford life insurance before the winnings and hadn’t been feeling well, wanted to visit a doctor, the station reported.


Even here in Australia where we have the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme whereby the government subsidises expensive medications like biologics, we limit who can have access by stringent qualification criteria. While jumping through the hoops required to qualify, the patient may deteriorate badly. An argument can be made that this policy is false economy as the costs of care over time may well outweigh the costs of treatment with better medications. The rich can afford private prescriptions.

As a species we could decide we don’t want to have this new health state of chronic and tell medical science to stop researching, developing and advancing because we just can’t afford the result.

We could accept that only the rich can afford treatments.

We can hope ultimately we will develop cures for these pesky conditions, but what do we do in the meantime?

Or we can adapt as a species. We can accept this fourth health state, chronic, as NORMAL. As normal as the existing states of less-than-healthy of terminal and curable that we have lived with for as long as we have existed as a species. We can find ways to support our people. Accept our new normal.

We’ve made advances with accessibility: ramps for wheelchairs, sounds on pedestrian crossings for the blind, special seats available on public transport. We haven’t really advanced re financial support. I’m not going to quote current federal ministers’ statements on the DSP and NDIS – most of us know their perspective.

The 65-year-old was told last year that her cancer had spread and she had two years to live. “You can imagine the shock,” she says. “Even now, I feel quite well, but the minute I’m physically doing a lot, you can feel the tiredness coming to your body. It’s nothing to do with, ‘I can’t be bothered.’ It’s just your body. You just feel weary. “I said to my son, ‘How could I be expected to do a full-time job? There’s no way.’” Yet it was only with this diagnosis that Penfold’s hospital social worker felt she had a genuine chance of accessing the disability support pension, the primary welfare payment for those unable to work.


Governments tell the voters we are “a burden”. The government fear the ever increasing numbers. While I have every confidence science will in time develop many cures, that’s not the situation at this time. Society needs to adapt. One way or the other, we patients need to know where we stand, we need clarity.

I joke that I work to pay my doctors to keep me well enough to work to pay my doctors. Many of us are in the same boat. The fear that one morning we will wake up and our treatment will have stopped working (it happens) or the condition/(s) have suddenly progressed to the point where the pain is too much to work is very real. Where will we live? In 2019, there were 148,500 households on the waiting list for public housing, down from 154,600 in 2014. That’s households, so way more people. I have heard it is now 155,000 households. Yet if we can’t work, we can’t pay private rent, let alone pay for our medications and the other costs of managing chronic conditions. We don’t own our own home? Well, that was very badly planned by us, wasn’t it – back to us being a burden. Even if we do own our own home, we may not be able to manage it. What if we are in our twenties, no time yet to build a nest egg or have bought a home?

Look at the population numbers again. Not everyone in the world can be a millionaire or billionaire. Oh, we want workers and customers and taxpayers and plenty of them – we just don’t want to have to care for any of them if they aren’t terminal or curable.

For example, although I work, I can’t change my bed linen or clean my shower recess. I have My Aged Care (which I pay for). No NDIS? Well, no, you see, because like many of us, I failed the test of my condition being stabilised or completely treated. I will be dead before I could realistically exhaust all the available possible treatments. My condition is notoriously unstable. I am not alone! I’m merely using myself as an example because I have intimate knowledge of the details of my own case.

As if all this wasn’t enough, we are excluded from Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation (because we are never terminal) and now we have the organisations like the ACL fighting VAD:

The current conservative government in Australia needs to go to the polls openly with the policy they really seem to want: to essentially minimise or remove both the DSP and NDIS. Would they actually prefer the ever increasing number of chronically ill people in the population just be put down? Like dogs or cats or horses. Of course, that conflicts with their aversion to VAD. They can’t have it both ways. What is their plan? Do they have policies? I doubt it.

As I have stated before, I don’t like the term “chronically ill” because of the inference of the word “ill”.

I am not ill in the sense I am not able to live a relatively normal life. I’m not confined to bed, I’m not in hospital, I’m not on a drip: I’m still driving, swimming, working. I have chronic conditions I must MANAGE, I can never stop managing those conditions, but I am not ILL in the sense of the common usage of the word. I stress the difference between common use and medical use of the word ill.


As a species, as a society, humans MUST determine a humane solution to this problem. As I wrote at the top of this article, there are many factors involved here: environment, population growth, advanced science, advanced medicine and of course the greatest god of all, The Economy.

While I am not suggesting society can afford to provide 24 hour home care for every chronically unwell person, I am saying we need innovation here. There may be solutions no-one has thought of yet. While my generation is the first in any great number, there are the generations after us. This social conundrum is NOT going to disappear. It is going to get worse before it gets better.

Society needs to adapt. Don’t throw us away, for we are your lab rats in this period of history. Future generations will benefit as science develops and perfects treatments and hopefully cures.

Published by

Robyn Dunphy

I offer exercise guidance to those with chronic medical conditions where exercise is beneficial.

11 thoughts on “Will Society Adapt? When? How?

  1. […] In closing I would like to emphasise none of the above is in itself, for me, medically serious. My son-in-law is fighting leukemia – THAT is medically serious. That is life threatening. My challenges have been been painful, probably costly to the health system and certainly inconvenient. Yes, the outcome could theoretically (based on symptoms) have been more serious, but it isn’t. However, all chronic illness patients live with this complexity and disruption to our lives reasonably constantly. And every day we grow in number. THAT I discuss in detail in Will Society Adapt? When? How? […]


  2. […] I only have me to worry about. What of a young mother with my conditions? Finding those dollars could be very difficult. That patient may skip medications in order to feed her children. We need to improve our support of chronically ill patients, as I discuss in “Will Society Adapt? When? How?“ […]


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