Technologic medicine

>> Saturday, January 2, 2016

No one who's seen the decline of pneumonia and a thousand other infectious diseases, or has seen the eyes of a dying patient who's just been given another decade by a new heart valve, will deny the benefits of technology. But, as most advances do, this one has cost us something irreplaceable: medicine's humanity. There's no room in technological medicine for any presumed sanctity or uniqueness of life. There's no need for the patient's own self-healing force nor any strategy for enhancing it. Treating a life as a chemical automaton means that it makes no difference whether the doctor cares about--or even knows--the patient, or whether the patient likes or trusts the doctor.

Because of what medicine left behind, we now find ourselves in a real technological fix. The promise to humanity of a future of golden health and extended life has turned out to be empty. Degenerative diseases--heart attacks, arteriosclerosis, cancer, stroke, arthritis, hypertension, ulcers, and all the rest--have replaced infectious diseases as the major enemies of life and destroyers of its quality. Modern medicine's incredible cost has put it farther than ever out of reach of the poor and now threatens to sink the Western economies themselves. Our cures too often have turned out to be double-edged swords, later producing a secondary disease; then we search desperately for another cure. And the dehumanized treatment of symptoms rather than patients has alienated many of those who can afford to pay. The result has been a sort of medical schizophrenia in which many have forsaken establishment medicine in favor of a holistic, prescientific type that too often neglects technology's real advantages but at least stresses the doctor-patient relationship, preventative care, and nature's innate recuperative power.

The failure of technological medicine is due, paradoxically, to its success, which at first seemed so overwhelming that it swept away all aspects of medicine as an art. No longer a compassionate healer working at the bedside and using heart and hands as well as mind, the physician has become an impersonal white-gowned ministrant who works in an office or laboratory. Too many physicians no longer learn from their patients, only from their professors. The breakthroughs against infections convinced the profession of its own infallibility and quickly ossified its beliefs into dogma. Life processes that were inexplicable according to current biochemistry have been either ignored or misinterpreted. In effect, scientific medicine abandoned the central rule of science--revision in light of new data. As a result, the constant widening of horizons that has kept physics so vital hasn't occurred in medicine. The mechanistic assumptions behind today's medicine are left over from the turn of the century, when science was forcing dogmatic religion to see the evidence of evolution. (The reeruption of this same conflict today shows that the battle against frozen thinking is never finally won.) Advances in cybernetics, ecological and nutritional chemistry, and solid-state physics haven't been integrated into biology. Some fields, such as parapsychology, have been closed out of mainstream scientific inquiry altogether. Even the genetic technology that now commands such breathless admiration is based on principles unchallenged for decades and unconnected to a broader concept of life. Medical research, which has limited itself almost exclusively to drug therapy, might as well have been wearing blinders for the last thirty years.

It's no wonder, then, that medical biology is afflicted with a kind of tunnel vision. We know a great deal about certain processes, such as the genetic code, the function of the nervous system in vision, muscle movement, blood clotting, and respiration on both the somatic and the cellular levels. These complex but superficial processes, however, are only the tools life uses for its survival. Most biochemists and doctors aren't much closer to the "truth" about life than we were three decades ago. As Albert Szent-Györgyi, the discoverer of vitamin C, has written, "We know life only by its symptoms." We understand virtually nothing about such basic life functions as pain, sleep, and the control of cell differentiation, growth, and healing. We know little about the way every organism regulates its metabolic activity in cycles attuned to the fluctuations of earth, moon, and sun. We are ignorant about nearly every aspect of consciousness, which may be broadly defined as the self-interested integrity that lets each living thing marshal its responses to eat, thrive, reproduce, and avoid danger by patterns that range from the tropisms of single cells to instinct, choice, memory, learning, individuality, and creativity in more complex life-forms. The problem of when to "pull the plug" shows that we don't even know for sure how to diagnose death. Mechanistic chemistry isn't adequate to understand these enigmas of life, and it now acts as a barrier to studying them. Erwin Chargaff, the biochemist who discovered base pairing in DNA and thus opened the way for understanding gene structure, phrased our dilemma precisely when he wrote of biology, "No other science deals in its very name with a subject that it cannot define."
~Robert O. Becker, M.D., The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life, p. 19-21.


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