Last week, I saw Dr Atul Gawande speak at Health Action 2017. Healthcare advocates and activists sat around scribbling notes and clutching at their choice of whole-food, cold-pressed, green and caffeinated morning lifelines. Gawande speaks softly, lyrically and firmly; the perfect bedside manner for healthcare advocates in these early days of the Trump presidency. He calmly announced to the congregation that the age of heroic medicine is over. Fortunately, he continued, that’s a good thing.
Gawande’s remarks echoed a piece he published in the New Yorker. He writes that for thousands of years, humans fought injury, disease and death much like the ant fights the boot. Cures were a heady mixture of quackery, tradition and hope. Survival was largely determined by luck. Medical “emergencies” did not exist; only medical “catastrophes”. However, during the last century, antibiotics and vaccines routed infection, polio and measles. X-rays, MRIs and sophisticated lab tests gave doctors a new depth of understanding. New surgical methods and practices put doctors in a cage match with Death and increasingly, doctors came out with bloody knuckles and a title belt. Gradually, doctors became heroes and miracles became the expectation and the norm. This changed the way we view healthcare. Gawande writes, “it was like discovering that water could put out fire. We built our health-care system, accordingly, to deploy firefighters.”
But the age of heroic medicine is over. Dramatic, emergency interventions are still an important part of the system. However, Gawande insists that the heavy emphasis on flashy, heroic work is misplaced. Much more important is “incremental medicine” and the role of the overworked and underappreciated primary care physician.