Science Meets Medicine

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Between 1850 and 1914, scientific advances such as better information, less painful treatments, and new drugs, allowed doctors to treat patients much more efficiently. Doctors were better able to glean information about the living body and to diagnose and treat its ills such as providing medications for severe migraines. They began to use stethoscopes, thermometers, and chemical tests that read organ function, as well as better surgeries that delved deeper into the body than they had before. Doctors were increasingly ambitious in their efforts to treat patients.

There was not a uniform response by doctors to the rapid advances. Some doctors embraced the new science, while others objected to it. The objecting doctors felt that there was coming to be too much reliance on technology and that medical practice should remain an “art” that depended more on the skill of the individual rather than on devices. These doctors also felt that the emphasis on technology and specialists detracted from the focus on the need for general practitioners.

With such great changes, it was inevitable for most everyone to start thinking about medicine in a different way. In particular, I was surprised by the governmental and institutional response. The government and institutions such as insurance companies began to think about medicine as a determiner of normalcy. People’s data was gathered and compared, leading to a definition of what was normal and healthy. This definition was used to determine a person’s health, which in turn was used to decide whether they could join the military, be employed in certain places, be required to complete mandatory fitness programs at work, or be insured.

This is similar to today’s concern that genetic information could be used to determine what conditions a person is at risk for, and that people could be denied insurance, or charged more for it if they were at risk for certain conditions. Another similarity is that even then, doctors were questioning if technology had advanced too far. However, back then the doctors who were against the use of machines felt that it detracted from their skills as individuals. Today, machines that help save lives are welcomed for their use but questioned because our ethics have not yet caught up to the technology.