to the power and corrupting influence of Big
Pharma, the teaching
February 22, 2013 -- A delightful article on Dr. Larry Alexander's new web site called EyeLessons.com reminded me of my 2007 Friday Pearl on Socratic debate borrowed from a 1995 British Medical Journal. We hope you will enjoy reading it, or rereading it if that's the case.
SOCRATES: Tell me, Enthusiasticus (Meta-analyticus); they say you are espousing a new form of medical practice. Is that so?
SOCRATES: Does it have a name or description?
SOCRATES: How very interesting! But I do find the title that you have given this new form of medical practice rather alarming. I thought that all doctors were trained in the scientific tradition, one tenet of which is to examine the evidence on which their practice is based. How then does this new evidence-based medicine differ from traditional medicine?
SOCRATES: Do you imply that in their narrowness they fail to search for evidence which might cause them to reach a different conclusion or allow them to come to a more balanced decision?
SOCRATES: How do you, Enthusiasticus, manage to gain access to this evidence which more ordinary doctors find inaccessible? Is it hidden away?
SOCRATES: What is the cause of this reluctance to publish negative results? Is it because the science is poor?
SOCRATES: So, Enthusiasticus, sentiment still holds sway in medicine.
SOCRATES: I have often wondered about the application of the null hypothesis to studies planned to find out if a new treatment works.
SOCRATES: Should it not be the purpose of the null hypothesis to assume that the new treatment is no better than the old treatment or even no treatment at all? This is then the beginning of the application of statistical theory to the practical problem.
SOCRATES: I am not. The null hypothesis is just common sense. Statistical theory is, however, something else. My point is that I have never met a doctor who practices medicine in full accordance with the null hypothesis, nor, and this is more pertinent, one who applies it completely dispassionately to the investigation of the efficacy of treatments. All the doctors I know hope very much that their new treatments will work, whether it be in individual patients or in groups of patients in a clinical trial. Is it really possible to theorize on the question of proof of efficacy by one set of rules but approach the practical aspects of clinical testing of treatments by another?
SOCRATES: So is this evidence-based medicine going to fundamentally change the way doctors view their treatments?
SOCRATES: This seems admirable to me. I cannot understand why doctors might choose to practice by a method based on inadequate personal impressions rather than the more objective and comprehensive method you describe.
SOCRATES: Is this an expression of the conflict between the science and the art of medicine?
SOCRATES: Does it apply equally to the matter of diagnosis as much as treatment?
SOCRATES: Because my physician friends are always emphasizing to me how important experience and pattern recognition are in the making of a good diagnostician. Do you agree with that?
SOCRATES: Is this difference between the impact of personal experience on the diagnostic art, or is it a misleading influence in the appraisal of practice outcome, emphasized during the education of young doctors?
SOCRATES: What do doctors learn first and what aspects of medicine are most emphasized during medical education?
SOCRATES: A strong part of which is this experiential aspect?
SOCRATES: Perhaps then, the young pick up the experiential art of diagnosis from their teachers and mistakenly hope to apply the same approach to treatment, which as you have explained would lead to bad habits.
SOCRATES: Tell me, do you yourself apply the fruits of your evidence-based labours?
SOCRATES: I sympathize. I spend so much time in critical philosophy of an abstract nature that practical application of it has become impossible. I must warn you though that your colleagues, like mine, might not always appreciate your good intentions. Even now my detractors are planning to put me on trial for subversive thought. You must see that if you yourself are not constantly versed in the infinite variables of patient presentation and response to treatment, and dealing with them every day, you will be prey to criticism from those who do.
SOCRATES: What is their interest?
SOCRATES: So there must be a large number of doctors practicing cost ineffective medicine for such a grand scheme to be enacted.
SOCRATES: Those are words I would never have expected to hear pass your lips. That aside, however, are you sure that the motives of the doctors are as pure and intellectual as you imagine?
SOCRATES: Is it not the health care manager's job to ensure that health care is delivered in the most cost effective way possible? And do not all politicians exhort managers to get the best bargain?
SOCRATES: Then what do they perceive as the main barrier to their purpose?
SOCRATES: It would be nice, Enthusiasticus, my gullible friend, if it were really so, but I doubt it. The main barrier they perceive is an archaic medical profession spending their money in a profligate manner. They see your beloved evidence-based medicine as a means to shackle the doctors and bend them to their will. That, I am certain, is why they are so enthusiastic about it. Beware, Enthusiasticus, that you are not used as a dupe in a political game of healthcare economics. Remember, hemlock may be down the line. (See The Age of Pharmageddon.)
Ellen Troyer, MT MA
*Consultation with a health care professional should occur before applying adjustments or treatments to the body, consuming medications or nutritional supplements and before dieting, fasting or exercising. None of these activities are herein presented as substitutes for competent medical treatment. See Disclaimer.