Miles Kington: The weird and wonderful world of 'boutique medicine'

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The Independent Online

"It's the boutique medicine of the future," says Professor Peter C Albertsen. "We can know what diseases we will have to face in the rest of our lives."

Professor Albertsen is an American specialist in prostate cancer, and he has been looking at DNA research which will enable people to forecast more and more accurately what kind of cancer a man might get, and what screening will be necessary later on in life. And treatment, of course.

(It's all to do with heredity, of course, so that young men are given the opportunity to pinpoint hereditary fault lines in their family history and work out from their genetic make-up which particular cancers to guard against. Though it almost always seems to be prostate cancer, as far as I can make out. Possibly because Prof Albertsen is a specialist in that particular field, and wishes to earmark the kudos for that kind of cancer, now, while he has got the time and elbow room. More likely because prostate cancer has now been given the go-ahead as man's special cancer, just as women have been allocated breast cancer for themselves, even though it is not unknown for men to suffer from breast cancer.)

Never mind all that.

What worries me is the term "boutique medicine".

I don't think I know what it means.

I don't even think I know what a boutique means any more.

Perhaps I never did, looking back.

I used to think that a boutique was a chi-chi word for a small shop that sold you things didn't really need, for occasions you should really have ignored, at prices you knew you couldn't afford. For instance, a tiny shop that sold only silk scarves and leather gloves, and nothing else – that would be a boutique.

If it also sold gum boots and tweed caps, it was not a boutique.

Unless, of course, it sold only feminine gum boots with flower patterns all over them.

And was called Bootique.

Then it might be a boutique specialising in boots.

Or perhaps not.

The name of the shop, my wife tells me, is very important to the image of a boutique, and although Bootique is clever in its own way, it is also wrong, because it gives an impression of what it is selling, which it should never do.

The one thing you will never buy at Mulberry, for instance, is mulberries.

I have come across boutiques called Jig Saw and Monkey Puzzle, and you couldn't get jig saw puzzles, or any kind of puzzle, in either of them. Or indeed Chile pine trees. (Monkey puzzle tree is another name for Chile pine. Just showing off.) There is a classy boutique in nearby Bath called The Dressing Room, which actually sells nothing but very upmarket brassieres and lingerie, where I once spent an increasingly anxious hour and a half trying to buy a posh present for my wife ...

The well-known shop called Next sounds as if it would like to be a boutique, but I think it's already too big and prosperous for that. It's a chain, isn't it? Can you have a chain boutique? Well, maybe, but it's pushing it.

So what, grasping the nettle, is "boutique medicine" ?

Are there really going to be little places where you can get the right cancer for you?

For a long time there has been an excellent boutique in Bath called Tumi, which sells mostly Andean goods from Peru.

Might there ever be a medical boutique called "Tumour" where you can pop in for treatment? Might there ever be a series of boutiques which hinted that prostate cancer was the right one for men, and breast cancer for women, and told you what to do about it? I doubt it.

We are excavating at the outer limits of good and bad taste here, so I shall have to tread carefully. Luckily, the plain fact of the matter is that I do not know what "boutique medicine" is, so until some specialist in this mysterious field gets in touch with me and tells me what it is all about, we shall have to draw a veil over the matter right there. I'll let you know if I am granted enlightenment.

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