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Does Medicine Need a Paradigm Shift?

Let's start with physics

As my brother's T-shirt says "The Pulse of the Earth is in Physics". Physics is a fundamental science. Also called "pure" science. That is a fancy way of saying it is reductionist. When you think of an apple falling to Earth in physics, all you think about is its mass and the forces acting on it. Everything else is immaterial to physics, including the questions like "Is the apple rotten/ripe?", "What is the probability of the apple falling on a rabbit and killing it?", "Are there hungry people waiting for the apple who won't get to eat it?", and "Is the apple cursed?"

The question whether apple is rotten can be answered by another branch of science called biology. Physics and biology are called natural sciences. These are branches of science which rely on observation of the universe to reach at inferences on how the universe works.

The question on probability would fall under mathematics. Mathematics is a bit different from natural sciences. Because it is based on axioms and logic. Such sciences are called formal sciences.

A hungry class of human beings not getting to eat apples and the reasons behind it would be the matter of study in social sciences.

The cursed apple is a subject of religion and superstition. These are, by definition, not questions for science to answer.

What kind of science is medicine?

Medicine is not a pure science like physics. It is an inter-disciplinary, applied science. Medicine uses several branches of science like biology, chemistry, and mathematics in its own goals.

A medical practitioner has to know several sciences like anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and microbiology to be able to practice medicine well. They would also need skills in probability, reasoning, and logic. Also critical are skills like communication, empathy, leadership, and management.

There are also several other forces in play that influence the practice of medicine - education, medical training, health systems, politics, economics, religion, human resource, war, and so on.

The question of a paradigm shift in medicine is thus complicated. Which part of medicine would the paradigm have to shift in? In the numerous sciences that make it up? In the way it is practiced? In the way people are trained in it? In the way the systems around it are organized?

Science is the only way of knowing 

What is science? 

The opening statement from Wikipedia is: "Science is a systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe."

Science is what allows human beings to operate in the world. It is the sum total of all that we know about the universe through thousands of years of living in it and observing it. It is the reason why we know that if I strike a lighter in a particular way with a knob turned on the gas from a cylinder will come into the stove and start a fire. It is how we cook and eat. It is the reason why we know that elephants can lug trees while cats or dogs can't. It is the reason why we are able to talk to each other over the internet.

Everything we know about the world is through theories and observations that confirm those theories. When we come across observations that contradict those theories, we are forced to come up with better theories. But till then, we seem to be able to live on earth with the old theories.

Is there any other way of knowing about the world? Think about it. Everything that you know about the world would come from your own observations and theories, or those by others that you have read about. There is simply no other way to know facts about the world.

You might say, "Oh, to know whether it is raining, I just have to look out of the window. No science involved". But hey, what you're doing is observation. And then forming a theory that it is raining. What if there is a film shoot going on and they're pouring water with a hose and that is what you're observing through the window?

The whole experience of seeing water drops falling down from sky and knowing that "it is raining" is based on science. It is based on human observation since time immemorial of the natural phenomenon called rain. Even when you're looking out of the window to say whether it is raining, you're using science. And it is science that allows you to say whether it is actually raining or a film crew pouring water.

You might also say, "Hey, I know cycling, is that science now?"

When you say you "know" cycling, the knowing refers to a particular sense of muscle memory that you have developed through practice. But this is not the kind of knowing we are talking about. We are talking about knowing how the universe and everything in it works.

Read a related post about this question of whether science is the only way of knowing, where I argue that if there is a way to know, then science is the only way of knowing. Consequently, there are some things we cannot know, and this question would not apply at all.

Queering science

While indeed science can be seen purely as methods of rationality as above, it is has to be acknowledged that science is ultimately a human endeavor and thereby it reflects all the faults of the human society almost as it is.

I've dealt with this human aspect of science in an earlier blog post and so I won't repeat those points here. Suffice to say, there is an intersectional approach to the practice of science that's missing in mainstream science.

What about applied sciences?

When it comes to an applied science like medicine, the problems seem to compound. Many of the sciences that make up medicine are all super hard to study. The tools we have are limited. And the institutions that we have are very problematic spaces (in terms of patriarchy, violence, oppression, and discrimination).

When faced with such a complex challenge, many people prefer to run away and find comfort in places that nobody is finding faults with (although they would be riddled with even more issues). That's why many people turn to Reiki, Homeopathy, Ayurveda, and so on. This gives them psychological comfort. But this is no solution to anyone's problems. We will talk about that later.

Applied sciences deal with the real world. One that is filled with uncertainties. One where perfect knowledge is impossible, but action is inevitable. It takes a lot of interdisciplinary thinking to operate in the field of applied sciences.

Let us look at what some people call Evidence Based Medicine. EBM is misunderstood by many. They give undue stress to the word "evidence" and think that a randomized control trial is the be-all and end-all of EBM. These are the people who assume that medicine is based on a paradigm of large numbers. What they do not know is that there are three pillars of evidence based medicine:

  • Clinical judgement
  • Relevant scientific evidence
  • Patients' values and preferences

Clinical judgement is where the practitioner comes in. The validity of medicine rests on the practitioner making the right observations and judgements about a particular situation. Similarly, we need a body of evidence, a body of science before us to be able to make any intelligent observations. And considering all of this is about a patient, it is imperative to keep their preferences in the whole matrix of evaluating what to be done.

Let us talk about relevant scientific evidence a bit more because that seems to cause a lot of confusions in the world. (Even in an otherwise brilliant talk about integrated medicine, Ravi Narayan equates medicine to controlled clinical trials, for example. (19:30 in the video)).

It is all about knowing the truth, as we discussed in the beginning. How do we know what to do in a particular situation. When someone comes in front of you with cough, weight loss, and fever, what do you do? What if you also found in the sputum of this person the organism that is known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis? What do you do? How do you know what to do? That's the important question.

If you knew magic, you could perhaps try that. You could get rid of all the M. tb from their body magically! That would help them. You might save them from certain death.

But if you didn't have the evidence built over centuries of human beings struggling with this disease called tuberculosis, how would you even know that this person would die soon?

It is only the scientific method of knowing the universe that can guide us to move even an inch forward towards helping those who are struggling.

The alternative to science

The alternative to science is the pandemonium of opinions and beliefs. There are people who consider these as ways of knowing the universe. But they don't critically think about their own philosophy.

Firstly, whose opinion counts? Who is authorized to make opinions? Is it reserved for people who meditate in the Himalayas? Can you and I do it? Does it have to be done high on weed? How do we measure whether someone is legitimate in claiming that the shit they pulled out of their ass is the correct knowledge about the world?

Secondly, when you have two people claiming two shits that are contradictory to each other, what do you do? Let's say person A says eat leaf A, while person B says eat leaf B when confronted with the patient we saw above. Which leaf should the person eat? Both leaves? No leaf?

The only way to evaluate anything and arrive at an actionable prediction about the universe is through science. If you look at what's typically called pseudoscience, things like Homeopathy, what you can see is that underlying all these are certain theories that are of very low quality. These theories are sometimes not verifiable. And if at all they're verifiable, they end up to be false. Proponents of these pseudosciences typically take comfort in the space where they come up with a theory, believe in that theory, and don't bother verifying those in the real world.

Paradigm shift in medicine?

Having said all that, let us come to the question of the need for a paradigm shift in medicine.

It is easy to speak in vague terms about "holistic" approaches that incorporate a paradigm of being "more rigorously attentive to the individual while keeping in view the larger picture". But when it comes to practice, we can quickly see how rhetoric like these are hollow.

Does attentive to the individual mean using genetics and personalized/precision medicine? Does it mean just taking patient preferences into consideration? How scientific and rigorous do you have to be when you say "rigorously attentive"? If a person says "I think homeopathy will work for me" and you diagnose tuberculosis in them, what do you do?

What about the other question. How many people practicing modern medicine are actually practicing evidence based medicine? How many do rely on science and evidence to manage their patients? How many randomized control trials did people use to prescribe drugs during COVID. How many RCTs are followed when people prescribe platelets and antibiotics for dengue? How many RCTs are followed when people diagnose typhoid with a single Widal test of 1:40?

Does the "larger picture" include social, political and economic determinants of health? But does it also mean that the focus should only be on distal determinants? Would you not worry about Anti-Tuberculosis Therapy in someone with TB or will you only keep saying "nutrition!", "nutrition!", "nutrition!". Fine, nutrition. But how? Will you feed this person out of your pocket or will you keep saying the government should come with food security schemes? Fine, the government should come with food security schemes. But will you work with policy makers on making such schemes a reality or will you keep writing about it?

Yes, a paradigm shift is necessary. A paradigm shift that puts people first. A paradigm where sacrificing rationality for practicality and/or sacrificing science for pluralism doesn't kill innocent people. A paradigm where working on social determinants goes hand in hand with treating now those who are suffering now. A paradigm where paternalism and saviour complex are replaced with solidarity and praxis. Nobody can say no to that paradigm shift.


Footnote: There's a human tendency to come up with alternative hypotheses to explain seemingly miraculous phenomenons. When I was 16 years old, I came up with "ASD rays" to explain telepathy. Thankfully there was a group of people who explained to me that my theory, however "sound" explains a phenomenon that's non-existent. At that point in time James Randi offered a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal claims. And nobody won it, of course.

As long as people think that things like homeopathy actually are more than just placebo, they'll come up with theories that go into sub-atomic realms to explain how these work. That's natural. And they'll keep struggling to understand why rational people reject their theories. If you are empathetic to them, you'll realize that to them it is inevitable that these theories must be true because otherwise how do they explain to themselves their "miraculous cure" that others believe is charlatanry?


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Akshay S Dinesh
I am a general practitioner rooted in the principles of primary healthcare. I am also a deep generalist and hold many other interests. If you want a medical consultation, please book an appointment When I'm not seeing patients, I code software, advise health-tech startups, and write blogs. Follow me by subscribing to my writings

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