What the Doctors Ddon’t Kknow

Imagine the year is 1600. In England Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne and Shakespeare has just written “Hamlet”, and the population of England and Ireland was around five-and-a-half million people. Now let us meet William Harvey, a twenty-two year old Englishman studying medicine in Italy. He went there because that was the place where all the great doctors were discovering the structure of the human body. Harvey directed his attention towards solving the mysteries of the heart and circulation. By 1615 he had all the evidence he needed to demonstrate the way the blood circulates round the body. As a result of his studies in 1628 he wrote “An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and of the Blood in Animals,” describing how blood is pumped throughout the body by the heart, and then returns to the heart and recirculates. Although this book later became the basis for modern research on the heart and blood vessels at the time it was printed his discoveries were met with indifference. Part of the problem was that there were no obvious practical applications for his findings. Neither Harvey nor anyone else had any idea about the symptoms of heart failure. It would take another two hundred years before the clinical value of his findings became clear.

Harvey’s case was typical of the period in that doctors were confused when new data emerged. His scientific discovery was received with indifference because there was a failure to understand how to take advantage of the findings. This inability to apply new discoveries was, and still is, just one cause of confusion in the medical community. In the past, doctors were confused not just by their inability to apply new scientific discoveries but also because they did not know how to recognize a disease or how to treat diseases they did recognize. In the present day and age, doctors are similarly confused. With an ever-increasing number of scientific discoveries, doctors need to cope with growing information which often gives them too many choices of how to deal with a disease, and so they are uncertain which is the most effective method. And trial and effort is hardly a suitable solution. Moreover, they often do not understand how to apply the new data. These changes are clearly evident in the drugs given and the technology used but more importantly in the way in which medicine is practiced.

One clear way in which medical practices have altered is the split between conventional and holistic medicine. Whereas before the two branches often met, with the ever-increasing specialization in conventional medicine they are moving further apart. The expert is the man who knows more and more, about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing. This seems to be the way both medical research and some physicians are heading. In the past physicians tended the patient and regarded his illness and body as a complete entity. They knew a little about the heart, kidney and gall bladder etc.

This division of the body into parts has led to a rise in holistic treatment. The word “holistic” comes from a Greek word meaning “whole”, “complete”, and that is how most people want their bodies to be dealt with: as a “whole” entity and not to be treated as if they are no more than the sum of their various parts. The problem is that even while alternative medicine deals with the body as a whole, it has almost as many specialties as there are specialists in conventional medicine. Choosing which branch of alternative therapy to undergo is difficult, just as it is difficult to know whether to combine the conventional and alternative approaches. Will a Reiki session be of more value than acupuncture and will either of these treatments negate the pill you have just swallowed or vice versa?

The problem is, there are so many facts available nowadays that it is impossible to know how to apply them. The questions are never-ending with each new piece of research. Does the doctor really know best? Should I just take a pill a day or would meditation serve me better. Do I need to take wheat out of my diet? Are artificial sweeteners really dangerous? Previously one tended to think that knowledge brings power or control but the easy access of medical knowledge gives many of us a feeling of being overwhelmed. Only now it is not just people in the medical field who are beset by confusion. On the contrary, we are all subject to it and reduced to the same sense of bewilderment that Harvey felt in the seventeenth century.

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