Before 20th Century, doctors did more harm than good

It’s David Leonhardt Day at my blog! I found the opening of his Sunday article “Making Health Care Better” thought-provoking:

Brent James told me a story that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear from a doctor. For most of human history, James explained, doctors have done more harm than good. Their treatments consisted of inducing vomiting or diarrhea and, most common of all, bleeding their patients. James, who is the chief quality officer at Intermountain Healthcare, a network of hospitals and clinics in Utah and Idaho that President Obama and others have described as a model for health reform, then rattled off a list of history books that told the fuller story. Sure enough, these books recount that from the time of Hippocrates into the 19th century, medicine made scant progress. “The amount of death and disease would be less,” Jacob Bigelow, a prominent doctor, said in 1835, “if all disease were left to itself.”

Yet patients continued to go to doctors, and many continued to put great in faith in medicine. They did so in part because they had no good alternative and in part because, as James put it, they wanted a spiritual counselor with whom they could talk about their health. But there was something else, too. There was a strong intuitive logic behind those old treatments; they seemed to be ridding the body of its ills. They made a lot more sense on their face than the abstract theories about germs and viruses that began to appear in the late 19th century.

So the victory of those theories would require a struggle. The doctors and scientists who tried to overturn centuries of intuitive wisdom were often met with scorn. Hippocrates himself wrote that a physician’s judgment mattered more than any external measurement, and the practice of medicine was long organized accordingly.

This illustrates three immensely important and disturbingly depressing realities about humanity:

  • We can ignore mountains of evidence that we’re wrong, instead collectively deluding ourselves for centuries — even millenia — based on superstition, wishful thinking, (unfounded) trust in authority figures, and cultural tradition

  • We tend to stick with what we know, even when it’s wrong — even to the point of killing us — rather than open our minds to alternative viewpoints

  • We effortlessly rationalize away facts that don’t conform to our current beliefs and readily believe in completely unscientific theories and embrace harmful treatments because we so unquestioningly accept stories that “explain” why something (false) is true

Posted by James on Wednesday, November 11, 2009