Modern medicine is one of the most scienceintensive sectors. Every year, billions of euros are invested in research centers and laboratories around the world, and Switzerland leads this trend. We spoke with Beat Villiger, Doctor of Medicine and President of the Swiss Society for Sports Medicine, about the advances in medical technologies and the transformation of treatment methods.
– Doctor Villiger, we live in an age when modern technology is present in all aspects of life. The world is changing rapidly. Are these processes even more noticeable in medicine?
– Today a fully equipped Swiss clinic is more like a mission control centre for a spacecraft from a science- fiction film. Several key developments have altered our understanding of modern medicine in a global sense. The first is the active introduction of digital technology, including data storage and transfer. The second is the development of minimally invasive treatment techniques. The third is the personalization of diagnoses. The fourth is the minimization of side effects, and the re-classification of previously deadly diseases as chronic diseases.
– Not a single surgical operation is carried out without a computer. The surgeon’s main instrument now is not a scalpel, but a laptop…
– Yes. In fact, the machine controls the process and helps in any operation. This allows us not only to minimize blood loss, but also to reduce the invaded area to a literally microscopic size. If earlier, for any surgery in the abdominal cavity, we had to make huge incisions, now we can get to the site of the disease through small punctures or even through blood vessels. Now such surgery can also be carried out on very elderly patients. A couple of decades ago we could not even dream of this. Let me give you an example from orthopedics. The joint is no longer completely replaced – we replace only the damaged part. Digital technology has made surgery minimally invasive. In many cases, it allows patients to avoid huge scars and recovery periods lasting for several months.
– Physicians and scientists agree that it is important to diagnose a disease at an earlier stage. It is much harder to deal with its consequences. Can a personalized diagnosis be called an important step in this direction?
– Of course; it is an absolutely different approach to a patient and his problems. Previously, all analysis was the same, and now medicine has introduced an individual approach. Each body is unique, and its reactions to certain drugs and procedures may differ significantly. For example, with the help of genetic tests today we can determine how a patient will respond to a drug, and can administer the correct dosage. In addition, I have to mention the level of modern equipment. New technologies allow us to carry out laboratory tests online. For example, MRIs in Switzerland are already being done on tenth- generation machines.
– What else helps to minimize side effects from treatment?
– A good example is the modern approach to cancer treatment. Progress in this area has been enormous. For example, scientists have found that a number of tumor cells have specific openings. Previously, toxic drugs affected the entire cell, which had a detrimental effect on the whole body. Today, drugs are delivered directly to these openings. This kind of therapy is focused and direct. It can even be administered to outpatients. Of course, there are types of cancers that are practically resistant to treatment. A similar situation happens in advanced cancer stages, when the metastases have already spread throughout the body. In Switzerland, many researchers are working on how to manage diseases and turn them from lethal into chronic diseases, as has happened with high blood pressure. In this case, the patient will be able to take medication throughout his life to prevent the cancer from progressing.
– To remain physically active and live to an old age without serious diseases is possible through a combination of many factors. Of course, advances in modern medicine help us. But we ourselves can prevent diseases if we choose the right lifestyle…
– That is completely true! I have recently become acquainted with an interesting study. The purpose was to study genetic predispositions to a number of diseases and their prevention. So, if your close relatives have ever suffered an early heart attack or stroke, you are at risk. But you only need good nutrition and physical activity to reduce the risk by almost 50%. Vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, olive oil, and a bit of red wine must be present in your diet. And we are not talking about the complete rejection of «bad» foods. If two-thirds of your diet is balanced, the remaining part can be assigned to pleasure and gastronomic extravagance.
The same goes for physical activity. Twenty to thirty minutes per day – that’s a minimum. The World Health Organization has been saying for a while that longevity and health are based on lifestyle, more so than on medicine.
– So, it looks like high-tech medical care is insufficient, and responsibility for our health lies primarily with us?
– If I install a new heart valve in a patient, give him new joints or even a new brain, and the man himself continues to destroy his body, we will not achieve positive results. It is important to deal with both sides of the problem – both medicine and lifestyle. But is it worth it? The results are not arithmetical but exponential.
– What do you personally do to maintain your health? Do you like fitness?
– I am already 73. There was a time when I engaged in sports. But today I enjoy life, take advantage of all the opportunities I get, and never feel down!
MD is a specialist in the field of rehabilitation and sports medicine, physical therapy, pulmonary disease, and internal medicine. Born on January 27, 1944, he is married with two children and is fond of winemaking.
For many years he held management positions with leading medical institutions and professional organizations in Switzerland. In particular, from 1983 to 2000 he was Director and Chief Physician at the Thurgauer Schaffhauser Hohenklinik (TSH) in Davos, and in the 2000s he headed the Medical Center at Grand Resort Bad Ragaz. He was Executive Director of Schweizer Paraplegiker-Zentrum (SPZ) in Nottwil, President of the Swiss Health AG, and President of the Swiss Society for Sports Medicine (SGSM). Dr. Villiger is a sports doctor with a worldwide reputation: for 16 years he worked with the Olympic team in Switzerland (he was the chief physician of the national team at the Olympics in Salt Lake City, Athens, Turin, and Beijing). For 24 years he headed the medical service of the Davos hockey club, and for 18 years worked as chief physician to the Swiss Ski Racing Federation. Since 1998 he has been a member of the Medical Commission of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Dr. Villiger is the author of more than fifty research papers and several hundred articles in the fields of pulmonology, sports medicine, cardiology, and immunology.