Thursday, March 10, 2011

Medical Thinking

Medicine has become an eclectic assortment of activities, loosely connected to a variety of scientific disciplines. While MDs study science, they are not usually scientists. They are technicians with a special mandate to care for other humans who are sick and injured. A short time ago, physicians were conspicuous members of communities with well defined social status and social responsibilities that were often more important than their technical abilities. The community recognized the limitations of its physician and accepted caring and concern in place of therapeutic efficacy. Physicians continued the traditions of shamans, performing in front of audiences who needed their reassurance or who shared their grief.

As human populations grew, societies became multilayered complexes of interacting groups and technologies. Universities and medical societies clung to the old ideas of the community physician while teaching medical students an odd assortment of technologies, hoping that somehow these bright people would figure out how to retain their humanity while they practiced increasingly abstract and impersonal techniques. Hospitals collected machines for diagnosis and treatment and hospital communities involved increasingly diverse groups of people who interacted in increasingly complex ways. Specialized physicians stayed in the hospital where high technology equipment and teams of technicians were available.

Many complications have arisen in recent years in the application of increasingly expensive technologies. Both physicians and patients complain that they have become disenfranchised and alienated. The media features medical news everyday, creating a feeding frenzy for good news --- everyone wants to believe claims that a common disease is about to be cured. Although progress in basic science is marvelous, progress in medical treatments is slow and often disappointing. Media claims tend to misleading, creating inflated expectations and stampedes towards cures that are more fantasy that reality or are frankly fraudulent.

Medical practice is now under scrutiny from many directions. The idea of practice guidelines and problem-solving algorithms have been around for many years, but now are the subject of heated debate. Many scholars have realized that research findings do not get incorporated into medical practice - indeed with the proliferation of information, there is less formal direction in the selection and application of knowledge. Practice guidelines are now so numerous that a front-line physicians could not possibly follow them. Astute observers notice that medical practice goes with fads and fashions. The most important source of modern illness such as the negative effects eating too much of the wrong food and the toxicity of polluted environments are too complicated and are usually ignored in medical practice.

There are different approaches to the study of medical practices. One approach is to examine how physicians think and react. In the best case, physicians are objective, rational problem solvers who follow standard algorithms to arrive at correct diagnoses and who prescribe the safest, least expensive, most efficacious treatments. In the worst case, physicians are prejudiced, irrational technicians who are unreliable problem solvers and often fail to make correct diagnoses and often prescribe treatments that are expensive, unsafe and fail to solve the problem at hand.

You can argue that physicians are just like everyone else. They have likes and dislikes and limited ability to understand complex issues. Physicians can be as irrational as anyone else. For example, physicians often divide illness into two broad categories, the organic and the non-organic. The distinction is used universally by physicians when they talk to one another but there is no biology to support the irrational belief in "non-organic illness." In dismissing a patient’s symptoms, a physician will remark to a colleague, for example, that the origin of the abdominal pain is "supratentorial." This is a neuroanatomical remark without much understanding. The tentorium is a membrane that forms a floor for the cerebral hemispheres inside the skull. A supratentorial event would involve any part of the brain above the midbrain and for many physicians, brain function at this level is indeed a mystery.

Physicians continue to rely on patient’s stories and medical students are still taught to take a history as an essential part of their examination of the patient. However, all story telling is imperfect; patients lie, both deliberately and inadvertently. Physicians tend to be impatient and biased listeners who want to hear a simplified story that fits their preconceptions of diagnostic categories. They often ignore the patient's report and invent their own story.

Medicine is afflicted with descriptions, categories and generalizations that are confusing or misleading. The popular notions of cancer, for example, are misleading. Slogans such as "Cure for Cancer" are nonsensical. There is no disease called cancer, rather there are diverse expressions of cell growth gone wrong. Aberrant cells are created in everyone. Abnormal cells can occur in any tissue of the body - one at a time or in groups. The first tumor discovered is described as a local disease, but malignant cells enter the blood and are carried through the body. "Cancer" is a whole body, chronic disease. The incidence of mutated cells increases with age and increases as more carcinogens are introduced to the environment. Fortunately, most abnormal cells fail to grow. Some growth abnormalities are pre-programmed, but most are induced by carcinogens that are optional features of environments. Most often, carcinogens are man-made radiation or chemicals, distributed in the air, water and food. MDs add carcinogens to their patients' burden with XRays and chemotherapeutic drugs; attempts to kill one population of mutated cells, creates other populations of mutated cells and, at the same time, suppresses immune activity that might destroy the new mutations.

Recently, stories about individuals and their unique experiences have been replaced by reports from studies of large anonymous groups whose fate is interpreted with statistics, as if these studies were better than understanding the experience of individuals. The results of studies are analyzed statistically which creates an abstract, virtual reality of doubtful value. I believe that medicine based on large "clinical studies" is flawed at fundamental level of wrong assumption, but evidence-based medicine is the new dogma of medical practice. Drug companies use studies as part of their marketing strategy; good results are released to the media and bad results are forgotten. The ideals of science and medical ethics are also forgotten. See Confusing Study Results
You can argue that the education of physicians is flawed; modest attempts have been made to improve medical school teaching, but the same old stuff usually gets repeated with little or no review. Medical school tends to be a hectic tour through a variety of disciplines that contribute to the medical view of the word. Medical students are challenged to learn too much too quickly and have little time to reflect.

Medical education has a friendly surface, that invites you to study anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology and pathology, all noble disciplines that reveal life processes in health and disease. There is also a somewhat hidden curriculum that transforms smart and free individuals into obedient servants of the system. Conformity is the highest value in medicine and some students have trouble adjusting to their new status as obedient robots. The system includes many wealthy and powerful players who have little or no tolerance for idealist students who want to innovate and change the way the system works. Wealth means vested interest which translates into a desire to control medical school curricula, post-grad medical education and government policies.

New insights into human interactions, the environment and better understanding of the actual and real causes of disease might in the future transform medical education. Universities will have to re-examine their assumptions and methods. Strategies that involve disease prevention and interventions at early stages of disease should take precedence over futile attempts to fix end-stage disease.

In a New Times editorial, physician Zuger described a number of books written by other physicians. She identified Dr. Jerome Groopman and Dr. Atul Gawande, both clinicians at Harvard and writers for The New Yorker as articulate commentators on the state of medical practice. Zuger stated: "Instead of speeding along in double time, Groopman and Gawande, like the frustrated coaches of a losing team, are slowing the motion of medicine down to half-speed, examining each play, then each frame and image, trying to figure out where the glitches lie."

Groopman describes errors and uncertainty in medical care. Groopman said he wrote his book from dissatisfaction that is common among physicians. He analyses errors in assumptions and reasoning. MDs, like all humans, jump to conclusions quickly and then seek evidence that supports their first impressions. They tend to be dogmatic and resist change. Physicians are encouraged to think in terms of categories and link diagnoses with prescriptions. MDs should understand pathophysiology and think in terms of disease-causing processes that act over time. They should always want to know what causes the process and how to intervene in the early stages of disease to prevent progression.

Groopman describes some of his own experiences with other Doctors: "One of my first experiences with the problem came in 1983, during the first week in July as it happens, when my wife, Pam, also a doctor, and I were traveling to Boston from California with our son Steven, then 9 months old. Steve had developed a low-grade fever, had dark and loose stools and was irritable, refusing to nurse. Stopping in Connecticut to visit my in-laws, we consulted the town pediatrician. The doctor quickly dismissed Pam’s concerns. “You’re overanxious,” he told her. “Doctor-parents are like this.” By the time we arrived in Boston, the baby was ashen and he was jerking his knees to his chest and wailing in pain. We rushed to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital, where a new surgical resident examined him, ordered X-rays and blood tests and made the correct diagnosis: an intussusception, an intestinal obstruction. It was a hectic night, and the novice doctor was being pulled in many directions. He told us there was no urgency to operate and left us alone with our flailing child. I had worked one year in a research lab at this hospital and phoned the senior hematologist who had been my mentor. He contacted an attending surgeon, who came to the emergency room and whisked Steve to the operating room. “It was fortunate that we operated when we did,” the surgeon told us later. The intestine was at the point of bursting, spilling its contents into the abdomen, precipitating peritonitis and possibly shock."

Zuger, A. Doctors Who Wield the Pen to Heal the Profession. NYT. May 15 2007.
Groopman Mental Malpractice, NYT. July 7, 2007

See Medical Care and Planet Ecology