How to safely use your family doctor

The science of ignoring science

April 13, 2016, India

I have nothing against doctors. Most of them are good people who have dedicated their lives to helping us, and quite a few are good friends.

But doctors do have two issues. The first is science is still evolving, and the second is the medical field has evolved into a business.

If science can’t explain it, then it doesn’t exist

Let me illustrate. Science says we have five senses, and it does not recognise a thing called a sixth sense. But every one of us has on occasion felt that strange sensation of someone behind us, staring at us. On turning, we may even catch that person’s eye or see them quickly turn their gaze away.

We can’t have seen them as we don’t have eyes behind our head. They are not close enough to touch, smell, taste or hear either. Obviously, a sense other than our five senses was involved. Was it the mysterious sixth sense?

Why does science refuse to accept this very real sixth sense? Because it cannot explain how it works. And if it cannot explain how it works, it does not exist. Ironically, that’s quite illogical for a field that’s based on logic.

How Time bends Science

Around two hundred years ago, if you had told someone you can fly, you would have been thrown into the loony bin. At that point, science had not yet figured out that man could build flying machines. Hundred years later, the Wright brothers figured out the science of aerodynamics. They gave explanations and demonstrations. So science was cool with it. No loony bins for the Wrights. They were instead bona fide scientists and inventors.

When medicos are mystified

The common cold is an unsolved mystery. For all the advances in medical science, the best cure for a cold is simply time, and maybe rest and a simple diet. But science just doesn’t understand how a cold works, and it’s not about to admit this.

As a child, I’ve had doctors prescribe antibiotics to me for a cold, claiming the nasal infection could cause dangerous complications. It was enough to pressurise my parents into getting me those potent medicines. Over time, the treatment escalated and I ended up having a hellish experience that involved loads of drugs and surgery, but that’s another story.

Pushing drugs, legally

On hindsight, I can see what was going on. This was when medical reps of drug makers would regularly visit doctors with gifts, and invitations to seminars at plush 5-star hotels with plenty of free food and booze.

The reps would also give sample medicines that the doctor could pass on to his patients. The patient would gratefully accept the ‘free’ medicine and happily pay the doctor his hefty consultation fee.

In return, all the medical reps asked of the doctors was to push their drugs. The doctor would willingly prescribe those drugs, and point the patient towards a pharmacy which stocked the drug. The said pharmacy formed the third spoke in this unholy nexus of legalised drug pushing.

Doctors as businessmen

One of my doctors friends told me of a chat he had with the manager of the hospital he worked in. It was pointed out that too few of his patients were being recommended for surgery. This is where the hospital rakes in the moolah. My friend was asked to improve his numbers. He instead put in his papers. But most doctors in India will fall in line. They have spent a lot of money to reach where they are, need to recoup it, and will ignore their scruples in recommending unnecessary surgical procedures to patients.

Countries like UK recognise this danger, and have stuck with a government run National Health System. The system rewards GPs who sort out patients ailments with simple treatments, rather than referring them for complicated, expensive procedures.

On the other extreme, we have the US where billing rates are not set but determined by a patient’s financial capability. In what is a terrifying irony, the health industry actually preys on patients at their most vulnerable, with those out of network or uninsured, paying the highest rates.

Safely using doctors

The good thing was my experience helped when my daughter was born. My wife trusts these ‘drugs’ even less than I do, and prefers traditional Indian remedies, like a concoction of ginger, lime and honey to treat a cold.

But I didn’t want to land in the same boat as the anti vaccine crowd. I needed a trained physician to tell me if my kid was sick with some potentially dangerous illness like typhoid or whooping cough or chicken pox. So every time my daughter fell ill, I would haul her off to see the paediatrician despite my wife’s protests.

The doctor would diagnose the illness and prescribe a treatment. For instance, he would diagnose the cold as a nasal infection, he would say there was danger the infection could spread to her lungs and result in pneumonia, and would prescribe a course of medicines.

I would pay his fee, then go down to the pharmacy downstairs, and ask them to explain to me the drugs in the prescription. They would tell me it included an antibiotic, a cough syrup, a painkiller, and so on. I would thank them, leave without buying the medicine, go home and let my wife get on with her ginger-lime-honey concoctions.

Science would laugh at that concoction and other weird ones that my wife has been treating our kid’s occasional illnesses with all these years. Science would say it’s just as useful as a witches’ brew, and nothing but a load of superstition. And if I point out that it works, my doctor friends will patiently lecture me about the placebo effect. I think they need to learn the power of those three magical words, ‘I don’t know.’ You live, you learn.

After about four years of this, the paediatrician got a bit suspicious. I think the pharmacy must have informed him that I wasn’t buying. So he asked me point blank, if I was giving my kid the medicines he prescribed.

I couldn’t say a flat lie. So I admitted I rarely bought the medicines but I needed his expert eye to tell me what was wrong with my child. And she had been safe all these four years under his care. He looked at me carefully to see if I was mocking him, and I looked back solemnly. Finally he grumbled a bit, and explained I was taking a big risk. I suppose it didn’t matter that much to him as he was getting his consultation fee.

10 years later

My kid is now thirteen. She has had antibiotics just once in her life, and is none the worse for her lack of exposure to drugs. To build up her immunity, we have exposed her to germs as much as possible, letting her grow up playing in the dirt, and swimming in the sea. It seems to have worked as she shakes off flus and like in a day or two, usually without even missing school.

Yesterday, she was out at the mall to see Kung Fu Panda 3. In between, she managed to stuff herself with Nachos, hot dogs, popcorn, colas, ice creams, and other rubbish. By evening, she was throwing up.

All we gave her was one glass of buttermilk, which she promptly threw up again. Which was a good thing as all the poison came out of her system. We just kept an eye on her as she slept to make sure there was no high fever or runny tummy or any other sign of acute food poisoning. If there was, it would mean a midnight run to the nearest hospital. Luckily, there wasn’t.

The child woke up this morning still feeling a bit queasy, and with a half starved look about her. We first gave her half a pomegranate which my wife claims is a natural germ killer. She then had a traditional South Indian breakfast of puttu (steamed, rice flour with a bit of coconut) mixed with 2–3 small Indian bananas. But we allowed her to skip her milk. By lunch, she was looking much more like her usual, perky self.

As the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. And heals them faster when backed by a little rest, and simple, clean, wholesome food.

Handle with Care

I’m not saying we don’t need doctors. We just have to be aware medicine has evolved into a business. This conflicting role can lead the best of doctors to recommend unnecessary medical treatment. However a doctor’s expertise and experience is still irreplaceable. When illnesses and injuries visit us, their advice can still act as an invaluable guide and support… if used wisely.

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