“Diseases of want” arise from poverty, while “diseases of plenty” are associated with affluence. Many of the illnesses in each category are avoidable, but stopping them will require a revolutionary change in our approach to medicine.

Diseases of want are avoidable because poverty is avoidable. We have the technical expertise to eliminate extreme poverty simply by sharing information, generating relevant skills, and redistributing a small fraction of economic resources. Our failure to overcome diseases of want thus reflects not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. And it is this unwillingness, not the diseases themselves, that we must address.

By contrast, diseases of plenty – such as obesity, tobacco-related illnesses, depression, diabetes, and various types of cancer – arise because our affluent lifestyles make us ill. Such illnesses also are avoidable, but again, we lack the will to conquer them. They occur because our approach to medicine is fundamentally wrong. Once we have understood this, we will be better able to tackle diseases of want as well.

The problem is that modern medicine focuses primarily on treatment rather than prevention. It is supposedly people’s right to live as they choose, and if they fall seriously ill, their health system – doctors, hospital managers, insurers, medical researchers, and many non-medical support staff – is meant to cure them.

If we took an equivalent approach to aviation safety, we would allow anyone to fly airplanes, with or without a license, and would not monitor safety equipment. If a plane crashed, aviation safety personnel would make every effort to save the injured, which would be expensive, given the gravity of the injuries.

Yet, in practice, aviation safety efforts concentrate almost entirely on preventing accidents in the first place. Aircraft are required to be serviced regularly. Weather information is readily available. Pilots and other aviation personnel receive rigorous formal safety training, and strictly enforced rules ensure that a pilot’s performance is not impeded by fatigue or alcohol. The industry has many other safeguards, most of which are implemented automatically.

Read the rest of Dennis J. Snower’s article at Project Syndicate