The field of medicine continues to grow ever more complex.  Significant advancements occur at a pace that might have seemed unobtainable or even unimaginable in the past. 

A case in point is a recent news item that covered yet another successful separation, after a lengthy operation, of a set of conjoined twins. Another example is the blossoming of PTCA and stent placement, resulting in fewer patients with coronary disease needing coronary artery bypass grafting. We have even advanced to where we can now do this procedure through the patient’s wrist.

All the major advancements in medical treatment are wonderful — but our achievements in prevention are still subpar. One area that troubles me in particular is accidental injury morbidity and mortality, especially with regard to vehicle crashes that involve alcohol.

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Statistics reveal that we lose about 100 people per week to drunk driving. These are enough fatalities that CNN could do a special report every hour during the week on each fatality. In our state of Rhode Island, on St Patrick’s Day alone, more lives were lost to drunk-driving–related fatalities. In one sadly ironic instance, a person was killed while trying to prevent an accident by taking a taxi home — the taxi was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by a driver who was, yes, drunk.

Basically, I am convinced that no good comes from consuming alcohol, and our tolerance for driving while under its influence truly perplexes me. I am starting to think that our seeming acceptance of drunk driving must be because such a large percentage of the population is guilty of this behavior — either currently or at some point in the past.

From time to time politicians propose laws with stricter limits on alcohol use when driving. Yet the laws are frequently dismissed. Perhaps the politician themselves are guilty of drunk driving. In some states, where the legislature is made up predominantly of lawyers, perhaps there is a conflict of interest if the lawyers making the laws also represent defendants in cases involving DWI-related injury or death.

Unfortunately, the current number of lives lost seems to be an acceptable amount of collateral damage. People do continue to drink and drive and, as far as I can see, outrage is limited.

If we were to put as much effort into preventing alcohol abuse and tobacco use as we put into trying to develop cures for the damage they cause, we would save a whole lot of lives — and a whole lot of money.

People often ask me, What is the best way to stay healthy? I respond frankly, Don’t eat like a pig, drink like a fish or smoke like a chimney. Get regular exercise. Don’t bake in the sun. And wear a seat belt, so if you’re in a car accident you won’t die if you don’t have to. Then I can help you.

It’s pretty simple, but some people struggle with this — and for some, it’s 0 for 6.

I will continue to encourage my patients to focus on prevention and a healthy lifestyle. It is satisfying to see people overcome hurdles. Learning what it is that keeps people from living healthfully, and helping them overcome those obstacles can be challenging and requires patience, but it is rewarding. It is also lifesaving. Fortunately, the relationship we physicians have with our patients puts us in a position to make an impact.

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