Baruch professor takes aim at medical industry in new book

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Maya Demchak-Gottlieb, Copy Editor

Barbara Katz Rothman, a professor of sociology, public health, disability studies and women’s studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, recently came out with her newest book, “The Biomedical Empire: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The book has garnered critical acclaim for what The Lancet called “a lacerating challenge” to people “who are tempted to think that science has been such an untrammeled public good.”

Katz Rothman is also a professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Baruch College and the author of over seven other books covering a range of topics including childbirth and pregnancy, the food movements and race and adoption.

In her latest work, she tackles the issue of biomedicine as an imperialist force.

“Mostly, we talk about medicine as an industry but over the course of time it functions more like an empire,” Katz Rothman told The Ticker. “It is global in its reach; it colonizes, takes away power and the right to have knowledge from people all over the world; it functions as a form of government.”

Katz Rothman seeks to use the COVID-19 pandemic, and the spotlight that has been shined on the medical industry, as a catalyst for systemic change.

“The challenges were how to make people understand what I was talking about,” she said. “We’re used to thinking of like colonizing you take the land, but they also took the knowledge.”

Although much of Katz Rothman’s work in sociology involves this acknowledgement of imperialism, she noted the ongoing pandemic provided her with the perfect opportunity to clearly demonstrate its lasting impact on medicine.

Katz Rothman attributed the public’s frequent unwillingness to criticize the biomedical empire to good faith.

“People act as if we wouldn’t be alive if not for medicine,” Katz Rothman said. “And most of the increase in life expectancy has nothing to do with medicine. It has to do with what actually is public health. So better air quality, access to water, access to food, housing.”

Katz Rothman also said it is important to acknowledge, in the context of the business world, that the classist nature of the biomedical empire has ramifications on the average person.

“It’s not just the impoverished. If you have an ordinary middle-class life you can’t afford to take a year off, or six months or even two months to provide nurturing, loving care of a sick person you love, you can’t afford to house your sick grandma for an indefinite period of time,” she said.

The book is opposed to neither medical services nor individual healthcare professionals, Rothman explained, but rather simply the abuses of the larger system.

“I’m not opposed to the offering of these services,” she said. “Individuals can be really good people. They’re in a system that is not aimed at making the world a kinder, better place. It’s aimed at making some people profit from the world as it is.”

Katz Rothman also said she hopes her book will initiate change by getting her individual readers to think about the biomedical system in a different context.

“If you can get people to think a little bit differently, maybe smart people might make some social change, might think maybe we shouldn’t organize saving people’s bodies from destruction on the basis of profit, maybe there would be a better way to organize,” she said.