Out with the old,
in with the new
“I believe that you are suffering from what is called a fatty degeneration of the heart.”
Dr. Tertius Lydgate to Mr. Casaubon on making a diagnosis with the new medical device, the stethoscope.
Old notions in medicine have a peculiar way of lingering.
In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus in tissues of people with “consumption.” By connecting a bacterium with the disease, he usurped the long held notion that tuberculosis was a degenerative disease caused by lack of fresh air. But, for decades after Dr. Koch’s revelation, the “bad air” belief persisted. Surgical collapse of the lung, a painful and barbaric treatment for tuberculosis, persisted well into the 1960s, years after effective antibiotics were discovered in 1947.
The medical community of the 19th century viewed mental illness as the hereditary end-product of ancestral nervousness, alcoholism, prostitution and criminal behavior, a bias that remained widespread well into the mid-20th century. Nazi physicians invoked the theory of heritable “mental degeneration” to justify wholesale extermination of schizophrenics. Electro-convulsive therapy (ECT, or “electroshock therapy”) was widely applied to treat schizophrenia, depression, homosexuality, and criminal behavior for over 30 years, gradually abandoned (at least in its original form) after years of abusive application to subdue patients, demonized in the 1975 movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” depicting the author’s real-life experience with ECT.
Long after a theory or practice has been discredited, it can persist, refusing to die. The new and improved may not be adopted into mainstream practice for years, even decades.
Back to the 21st century: What if you realized that, by quirks of human nature and the uneven adoption of health information, your doctor practiced medicine appropriate for 1985? 1975?
While digital information nowadays is transmitted at the speed of light, disseminating as fast as it takes the next juicy tidbit to be “virally” reproduced via social networking websites, it’s the human factor that still operates with the inertia of human behavior. Habits and attitudes slow the adoption of new information in time measured not in seconds, but in years or decades.
A century ago, 20 years were required for the new technology of blood pressure measurement to be adopted after its introduction in the U.S. in 1910, since physicians were long comfortable with the practice of “pulse palpation” (feeling the pulse). (The arcane language of pulse palpation persists to this day, terms like “pulsus parvus et tardus,” the slow rising pulse of a stiff aortic valve; and the "water-hammer" pulse of a leaking aortic valve.)
The discovery of new, health-changing information today in the 21st century disseminates through the ranks of modern healthcare providers at much the same pace as measuring blood pressure did in the early 20th century.
It’s also tempting to paint American medicine as a fiefdom intent on maintaining exclusive rein over health information. Look back over the hierarchical relationship of medicine over nursing in the past century: When blood pressure measurement was adopted on a broad scale in the 1930s, it was practiced only by physicians, since nurses were deemed incapable. (Modern-day nurses should surely have a hearty laugh over this.) Stethoscopes, around even longer than blood pressure cuffs, weren’t permitted to fall into the hands of nurses until the 1960s, since the medical community feared that nurses might command too much control over patient care. Even after nurses were permitted to have their own stethoscopes, great pains were taken to be certain the nurses’ version was readily distinguishable from the “real” tool wielded by physicians; nurses’ stethoscopes were therefore labeled “nurse-o-scopes,” or “assistoscopes,” and were required to be smaller and flimsier.
Old and ineffective doesn’t always give way to new and better at once; it is slowed by habit as well as an unwillingness to relinquish control.
Somehow technology marches on. But it does so unevenly, sweeping some along in its first wave, others in its wake, some never at all.
Just as effective antibiotics to cure tuberculosis were available for 20 years while surgeons continued to remove patients’ lungs, so better solutions to heart disease are already available but not yet employed by your neighborhood physician. The primary care physician may have heard about some of the newest means to prevent heart disease, but is too overwhelmed with the day-to-day of sore throats, diarrhea, and rashes. Cardiologists, intent on inserting the next best stent or defibrillator, have little but passing interest in strategies that might halt or reverse the heart disease that can be “managed,” no matter how imperfectly, with procedural solutions like angioplasty and bypass surgery. We should bear these flawed human tendencies in mind as we explore the world of heart disease prevention.
We need look no farther than the front page of the newspaper to find evidence of the failure of present-day heart disease detection and management. Over the past several years, headlines have carried the likes of Tim Russert, Bill Clinton, Larry King, Dick Cheney, David Letterman, Tommy Lasorda, Ed Bradley, Mike Ditka, Walter Cronkite, Alberto Salazar, all heart disease sufferers. Some, like talk show host David Letterman, survived their brush with heart catastrophe and underwent successful bypass surgery. Others, like marathoners Fixx and Salazar, raised none of the conventional red flags for heart disease. All received standard, “modern” medical care . . . all the way up to their heart attack, bypass surgery, or untimely death.
Like the sphygnomanometer (blood pressure) cuffs of 1910, Track Your Plaque represents an example of the new. But, unlike the simple practice of taking blood pressure in the early 20th century, Track Your Plaque represents an entirely new way to look at coronary heart disease: a new way to measure it, a new way to identify its causes, and a new way to seize control over it, often to the point of achieving reversal of the process. It also puts control over much of this process into your hands and away from hospitals, cardiologists, and heart procedures.
I could speak of revealing “secrets,” but that’s not true. In Track Your Plaque, I simply convey information about heart disease that you were likely unaware existed, strategies that doctors fail to discuss. I assemble them into a “package” that, together, create an enormously empowering unique approach to prevent heart disease and heart attack.
Track Your Plaque also challenges the high-tech status quo, practices that occupy exalted places in the enormous cardiovascular healthcare machine that has dominated American healthcare for the past 40 years. I propose that high-tech hospital procedures should join the practice of ECT for homosexuality and insanity¾and become yet another relic of the past.