I know I may sometimes come across as a bit cynical. So I would like to begin this week’s opinion piece in a positive way with glowing feedback about a doctor, who is no longer practising. It came from the son of one of his patients:
“I remember the time Dr X gave to my dad. He would come round at the drop of a hat. He was a marvellous GP.”
He was certainly no Gregory House. There was only one small problem; he was a prolific serial killer. The doctor in question was a certain Harold Shipman. The official inquiry into his career concluded that there existed a “real suspicion” that he had murdered more than 215 people. You would have thought that such a high death rate would have aroused suspicions about his competence among the medical establishment and in the local community. Yet at the beginning the people of Hyde simply refused to believe their benign doctor could possibly be guilty of such crimes. People were confusing manner with results that is in some ways a metaphor for our own complaints about medicine. I know that a Doctor’s manner is also important. When I see a medium in action I am often impressed with their manner. It is a shame that their talents are dedicated to such a fraudulent cause.
Modern healthcare has produced astounding results and yet we seem increasingly dissatisfied with the attention we receive. Scientific medicine is indeed a modern miracle. I know I shall be accused of ethno-centrism but I think it has proved to be a unique tool. It looks in the human body as something which is fundamentally animalistic and not divine. John Diamond, a British broadcaster and journalist, who died of throat cancer succinctly exposed the fallacy of alternative medicine.
“It is easy for a well-fed metropolitan with time and money on his hands to talk about dealing with his chronic symptoms with Ayurvedic medicine or Chinese herbal remedies, but if you go those countries where they are all they have, you’ll find them crying out for goof old Western antibiotics, painkillers and all the rest of the modern and expensive pharmacopoeia. A Ugandan dying of AIDS-related tuberculosis doesn’t wanted to be treated with the natural remedies of his forefathers: he wants an aseptic syringe full of antibiotics…”
Of course modern medicine has plenty of problems. Economics is at the heart of this; modern healthcare is an expensive business. I know I’m going to destroy my libertarian credentials but I believe in a public health service even though I can see that it has systemic weaknesses. I am also aware that fighting illnesses is a never-ending battle; as soon as you conquer one new ones appear. The other day someone told me that if science were able to prolong a human male’s life span to 120, incidence of prostate cancer would be 100%. He seemed to doubt that this was progress. I have no such doubts. It is much better than what came before when children had to survive a macabre game of Russian roulette just to reach adulthood. Even if I become ill I have confidence in the power of scientific medicine to cure or at least alleviate the symptoms. Progress is never 100% good and there can often be unintended consequences but I feel it is important to recognise the debt we all owe to scientific medicine.
Hippocratic Oaths Medicine and its Discontents by Raymond Tallis