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Doctor or a scientist?

Written by Lucas Brammar · Wednesday 18th December 2013

"One special advantage of the skeptical attitude of mind is that a man is never vexed to find that after all he has been in the wrong"

Sir William Osler


Well, it's almost Christmas. I know it's Christmas because the animal skeleton situated in the reception of my University's Anatomy School has finally been re-united with his (or her?) Christmas hat, has baubles for eyes and tinsel on its ribcage. This doesn't help with my trying to identify it (oh the irony if it is indeed a reindeer). This term has probably been one of the toughest academic terms I've had, but then when you intercalate that is sort of what you choose to let yourself in for.

I used to think that regular readings were a chore in the pre-clinical years. I had ample amounts of ethics, sociology and epidemiology readings to do but this is nothing compared to the world of scientific papers. The first paper I had to read this term related to Glycosaminoglycan (GAG) integrity in articular cartilage and its possible role in the pathogenesis of Osteoarthritis. Well, I know that now. When I first started reading it felt very much like a game of boggle and highly reminiscent of high school spanish lessons where I just sat and nodded my head. This wasn't the end. Every seminar has come with its own prescribed reading list. The typical dose is around 4-5 papers.

This got me thinking. We don't really spend all that much time understanding how to read scientific papers nor do we really explore our roles as 'scientists' as well as future clinicians. Training programmes inevitably seem to create false divides between the 'clinicans' and the 'academics' and sometimes this has negative consequences - one simply criticises the other: Doctors don't know enough about science, academics are out of touch with the real world etc...

Doctors as scientists...

The origins of medicine itself lie with some of the greatest scientists of all time - Herophilus, Galen, Da Vinci, William Harvey (the list is endless). As well as being physicians, all of these people were also respected scientists who regularly made contributions to our understanding of the body's mechanics. Albeit, the concept of ethics was somewhat thrown to the wind (Herophilus, though dead for thousands of years, is regularly accused of performing vivisections on prisoners in his discovery of the duodenum).

Circulation 500px

Original sketches by William Harvey which proved a continuous circuit of blood being supplied and leaving the upper limb. He used his observations to explain the circulatory system as we know it today

What was unique about these people? The ability to challenge what they saw. They made observations, tested them against their own knowledge and asked more questions - they wanted to know more. As well as being doctors, we have the unique opportunity to make observations and question what we see. What's causing x to turn into y? What trends do we see in patients presenting with x? The most simple question can lead to the biggest shift in understanding. It only took Semmelweiss to ask why women were dying in a maternity ward to give rise to our concept of modern infection control.

Bad Science...

Anyone who has read the ranting tweets, ranting books and ranting YouTube TED videos of academic/GP Ben Goldacre will be familiar with this somewhat over used term. Pseudoscience (coined by the late great Karl Popper) is a much more sensible and meaningful term. Science is about gathering evidence which supports your hypothesis. Pseudoscience is a field which makes claims that cannot be tested by a study.

In truth, there's lots and lots of relatively useless information in print. It's fine knowing about biomarker/receptor/cytokine/antibody/gene/transcription factor (insert meaningless acronym here) but how is it relevant and how does it fit into the bigger picture? Science has become reductionist. We're at the gene level and new reducing levels of study (pharmacogenetics) break this down even further and sometimes, this is at an expense of providing anything useful to your clinicial toolbox.

Increasing job competition and post-graduate 'scoring' systems has also meant there's lots of rushed research in order to get publications and citations. This runs the danger of further undermining the doctors role as a true contributor to science.

Most of it is wrong...

I read an article recently that told me at least 50% of what I learn in medical school will be proven wrong in my lifetime. That might seem disheartening since I may have pointlessly consumed ample coffee to revise erroneous material. However, it's also exciting. What if you prove it wrong? What if you contributed to changing our understanding? As a doctor, there's no reason why you can't.

If we're going to practice evidence-based medicine then we need to understand that evidence and doing this requires us to wear our scientist hat. It would be nice to see a whole generation of doctors not just willing to accept our understanding but to challenge that which is tentative. That's what science is all about.

Here's hoping you don't find any meta-analyses in your stockings.
Merry Christmas.