Is More Medical Testing Better?

“I think this patient needs a CT scan of her chest,” the consulting
physician said to me over the phone. “Her lungs sound bad, and given her
history, we need to make sure she isn’t developing pneumonia.”

The patient, though only thirty-five, had been through a lot during her
hospitalization. She came in a week prior with some shortness of breath, an
abnormally high heart rate (tachycardia) and chest pain. But her heart
checked out just fine. An EKG was normal and her troponin, a protein
that spills into the blood with damage to heart, was undetectable. Because
of her tachycardia and chest pain we tested her for a

pulmonary embolus
, or clot in the lungs, with a CT scan. It was positive. The potentially
deadly clot blocks off blood flow coming from the right side of the heart
into the lungs causing heart strain and disrupting oxygenation of blood and
the functioning of the heart.

We admitted the patient to the

intensive care unit

where she received IV medication to thin her blood. She recovered but
continued to experience residual chest pain that would clear in the months
ahead. As we prepared to discharge the patient, the consulting physician, a
cardiologist, told us he wanted her to get another CT scan of her chest.
She had not had a scan since the initial stages of her workup. What if she
developed pneumonia in the interim? Her white blood cell count, often a
crude marker of infection, was not elevated. She did not have fevers. When
asked, she felt well enough to go home and wanted to leave. Then again,
being in the hospital made her susceptible to infection. Moreover, on her
physical exam, we heard crackles in her lungs –
this sometimes indicates an intrapulmonary pathology. The cardiologist’s
concern gave us pause and we ordered the imaging study.

~

Doctors often feel uncomfortable with areas outside of our expertise. Consequently, we call other specialists to see the patient and give us advice. Moreover,
patients sometimes ask to see a specialist in the hospital: “Can you call
the neurologist to come see me?” or “We’d like you to call a cardiologist
to see our father while he’s here.” Because consultants share a different
knowledge base than the team primarily caring for the patient they may ask
for more tests to rule out other serious pathologies that the primary team
neglected to consider.

The patient’s repeat CT scan merely demonstrated small collapsed alveoli.
These terminal branches of the lungs often collapse when we draw shallow
breaths or lie flat for a long time, a typical finding in many hospitalized
patients. Given the benign nature of this finding, we discharged the
patient. Yet she had received an extraneous dose of radiation and her
hospital bill would be hundreds of dollars more. Did she absolutely need
this? This common story raises other questions, too. Do patients do better
with more specialists seeing them? Do patients do better with more testing?

In a 2012 post for the New York Times Well blog, Tara Parker-Pope

pointed out

that “overtreatment – too many scans, too many blood tests, too many
procedures – is costing the nation’s healthcare system at least $210
billion a year, according to the Institute of Medicine.” And the stories
she tells about astronomical hospital bills due to overtesting are
disturbing.

In
a 2015 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group of researchers found mortality for high-risk
heart failure and cardiac arrest among patients was lower in teaching hospitals
during national cardiology meetings compared to the rest of the year – meaning that the absence of a large number of cardiologists, who were attending meetings, was correlated with lower mortality for these heart conditions in the hospital. In an editorial in the same issue, Dr.
Rita Redberg makes a disquieting suggestion: “How should we interpret these findings? One possibility is that more interventions in high-risk patients with heart failure and cardiac arrest leads to higher mortality.” Is there too much being done, especially by experienced
physicians?

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist, elaborated on these questions in a New York Times op-ed in 2015:

We – both physicians and patients – usually think more treatment means
better treatment. We often forget that every test and treatment can go
wrong, produce side effects or lead to additional interventions that
themselves can go wrong. We have learned this lesson with treatments like
antibiotics for simple medical problems from sore throats to ear
infections. Despite often repeating the mantra “First, do no harm,” doctors
have difficulty with doing less – even nothing. We find it hard to refrain
from trying another drug, blood test, imaging study or surgery.

When specialists like neurologists or cardiologists see a patient, they
approach the bedside from a unique perspective. The pathologies they know
and think about are very different from what family medicine or internal medicine doctors thinks of when they see a patient. Specialists, who often act as consultants, consider the diseases they are most worried about within their field. They’ve been asked to see the patient to
recommend workup for a disease potentially related to
their area of expertise. Their view, in other words, is necessarily myopic – if you give a carpenter a hammer, surely the carpenter will find a nail.
This does not always happen, but by nature there is a bias when a consultant
approaches a patient – and that bias is toward ordering another test,
toward doing something. Part of the art of medicine, especially as a specialist or consultant, is figuring out when the patient needs
something and when the best approach is to do nothing at all. Our patient
at the beginning of the story did not really need a repeat CT scan. To be
sure, the cardiologist didn’t recommend it simply to radiate the patient or
increase the hospital bill. But none of us wanted to miss something.

A conservative method of practice can come with experience, but as evident
from the JAMA study referenced above, that’s not necessarily the
whole story. Some of this, I think, requires thinking regularly about how well the
patient in front of the doctor is doing and how a test will change the
course of the patient’s treatment. “Will this change our management?” is a
question our attending physicians always ask us before we order a test. And it is a
question all doctors must ask themselves.

When Doctors Are Wrong

As medical students and resident physicians gain experience they also gain
knowledge and confidence. Consequently, young trainees eventually reach a
level of comfort in speaking with families and patients about prognosis and
disease course. This is part of the purpose of training, as these
conversations happen so often that they are an integral part of practicing
medicine. But it isn’t certain that with experience and confidence also comes
accuracy.

***

Soon after finishing sign-out on a night shift I received a page. The
nurses told me that a patient’s daughter had arrived and wanted to speak
with me about her father. The patient was an elderly but relatively healthy
gentleman who had been admitted with abdominal pain. Multiple imaging
studies had shown little to account for his discomfort. But the pain was so
intense that he could not eat anything. Even going to the bathroom was
difficult — he held in his stool to avoid the agonizing act of defecating.
As a result, he became constipated, which then exacerbated the pain. Thus,
the medical team administered anti-inflammatory treatments, stool softeners, and IV
fluids as they searched for the etiology of this troublesome symptom.

The patient’s daughter asked me about the latest imaging studies and labs
as she sat holding her father’s hand. Buried to his chin under the covers,
the patient participated in the discussion, asking when he would be able to
eat and go to the bathroom easily again. I explained that all the tests had
been negative so far and we were unsure of what was going on. I then left the
room, and the daughter caught up to me in the hallway. She seemed worried,
speaking hurriedly and pleadingly: “How long do you think my father has
left to live? How much time do I have left with him? Should I start making
funeral arrangements?”

The questions took me aback. I had seen plenty of patients in the
intensive care unit
who were on the verge of death and they looked so different from her father
— a profound pallor, somnolence, lethargy, disinterest in conversation
and food. But this patient wanted to eat again, he wanted to see his
family, he wanted to watch basketball on TV, and he was interactive and
conversational. His cheeks certainly did not exhibit the deathly pale hue
of those crossing over to the other side. I assured the daughter of this:
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. The most important thing right
now is that we figure out what is going on. I can’t tell you how long he’s
going to live but I would be shocked if he had only days or weeks left.”

This interaction repeated itself for the next three nights, always with the
same diagnostic uncertainty. On further imaging there was evidence of some
abnormal fluid in the abdominal cavity. Interventional radiologists
extracted the fluid to test it for any cancerous or infectious cells, but it
would take perhaps a week or more for definitive results to come back. In
the meantime, the patient’s pain improved and he moved his bowels without
issue. Even though we didn’t yet have a diagnosis he seemed to be doing
incrementally better each day.

On the fourth night I again saw the daughter and she asked: “You don’t
think I should be planning the funeral for my father, do you? He’s not
going to pass in the next few days?” I understood why she was asking the
question — any child ought to be concerned for the well-being of a parent.
But I was also surprised because her father was on the mend. I told her
that if he continued to improve he would leave the hospital, and his primary
care doctor would follow up the lab results and see him in clinic.

At around 2 a.m. that same night, a voice over the hospital loudspeaker
echoed throughout the halls as I jumped out of my chair: “Code blue, 7th floor, code blue, 7th floor.” There was a
patient in cardiac arrest. I ran out of the workroom and met up with
another resident. Which patient was dying? On my way to the code I ran
through the patients on the coverage list that evening; I did not expect
anyone to pass away. As the other resident and I ran down the hall I saw
the code cart containing all the medical resuscitation equipment necessary
to treat cardiac arrest outside of the room I had visited every night for
the past four nights. My heart leapt out of my chest; I pleaded with some
higher power that it not be that patient. But it was.

The resident, nurses, and I immediately began CPR. The anesthesiologists
burst into the room and stuck a tube down the patient’s throat and into his
trachea to protect his airway as the respiratory therapist attached the
tube to a ventilator to help the patient breathe on his own. After multiple
rounds of CPR, his pulse returned. We wheeled the patient — attached to
tubes, and poles filled with intravenous fluids — to the ICU for closer
monitoring. He didn’t respond to our questions or poking and prodding, but
he was alive.

Alas, as soon as we got to the ICU, his heart once again
stopped beating and his IV line ceased working — his veins (which can
happen as we age) were friable and brittle, and the small vein carrying the
volume and force of the IV infusions burst. Without an IV we could not give
medications. We turned, then, to an

intraosseous (IO) line
. This entails drilling a hole into the bone and infusing medications
through that hole. It is a proven method of administering medications when
physicians and nurses cannot obtain IV access. I opened the IO kit and
attached the drill to the IO needle, placing it on the shinbone and drilling. It
slid into the bone, I detached the drill, and hooked up the
IV tubing to the IO line jutting out of the patient’s bone. At this point,
the code had been going on for nearly 15 minutes and the patient’s family
had arrived. They watched as we furiously attempted to revive their loved
one. At some point a family member shouted “Stop, please, enough!” Time of
death: 2:45 a.m.

I sheepishly held my head down, avoiding eye contact with the family as
they sobbed. The medical team and nurses quietly left the room, leaving the
patient in peace. As I passed by the daughter, I could only say “I’m so
sorry” — little else would have sufficed. Not only did we not save him, but
night in and night out I had given the daughter a false impression that he
wouldn’t die. Perhaps, I wondered, I had been disingenuous in some way.
Either way, I was wrong.

 ***

Alas, physicians are wrong relatively often, and there is ample
evidence for this. In a systematic review in the

British Medical Journal in 2012
, researchers found that each year up to 40,500 adult patients in American ICUs die with a misdiagnosis. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis in 2009, concluding, among other things, that “while the exact prevalence of
diagnostic error remains unknown, data from autopsy series spanning several
decades conservatively and consistently reveal error rates of 10% to 15%.”
The American Journal of Medicine published a

separate analytic review article in 2008
, concluding that diagnostic error occurs up to 15% of the time in most areas
of medicine. The authors further theorized that overconfidence often
accounts for at least some of the errors. These reports have reached a wide
audience in the laymen’s press as well. In 2015, the Washington Post published an article indicating that diagnostic errors affect 12 million adults each year. The
impacts of errors, as we see in the story above, don’t just involve the patient
but the patient’s families, too.

Though these statistics are shocking, it is almost impossible, from the
patient perspective, to look at them and subsequently be skeptical of everything a doctor says. After all, we are not only practically but also emotionally dependent on them: We want reassurance from our
physicians and we want definitive answers. As a patient, it is frustrating
to hear “It may or may not be cancer and we can’t be sure” or “I don’t know
how much longer she has left.” Indeed, when the path ahead of us is no
longer clear, we turn to physicians for answers because of their
experience. We want them to be the kinds of people none of us can
be — always right, always knowledgeable, always calm and composed. But they
are fallible, despite the impossibly difficult and long road they’ve
traversed.

And what can we as physicians take away from this? Doctors want to be
the kinds of people their patients expect them to be. But the statistics
of medical errors are the reminders of how impossible that is; how many years of studying and
experience are necessary even in order to be competent; how difficult,
despite the many exams we take and pass, it is to apply knowledge
appropriately. Not only are we fallible, but the science we rely on is not
always helpful either. Indeed, the best studies are useful merely for inferring what will
probably happen — they do not tell us definitively what will happen to the
patient in front of us. Moreover,

scientific evidence does not exist
for every treatment in every situation or every diagnosis in every
situation. Once again in medicine,

our ideal does not match with the real
, and our preconceived notions are sometimes shattered in moments of frustration
and uncertainty. Perfection is unattainable, but we must
constantly seek it out, always aware of how out-of-reach it lies.

When patients and their families now ask me questions about prognosis or
treatment I always preface what I say with: “Nothing is 100% in medicine.”
Though I will be wrong again in my career and will, hopefully, learn from
my mistakes, I never want to give a false impression. We often tend to ignore uncertainty or wish it away, but we must always remind
ourselves, whether as patients or doctors, that no doctor and no science is perfect.

Revisiting The House of God

Dr. Stephen Bergman, a psychiatrist, published his now-famous satirical novel The House of God under the pseudonym Samuel Shem in August 1978. The book’s protagonist, a young intern, describes the emotional and physical difficulties during the first year of residency. With more than two million copies sold, the work is something of a classic within the
medical profession.

Even in medical school, before we started our clinical rotations during our third year, some of my
friends and professors recommended I read the novel, so I borrowed it from a fellow student. I enjoyed it but couldn’t fully identify with the
characters in the story, which dealt with the hardships of residency: terrible hours, unsympathetic attending physicians, obstreperous and ornery patients, horrible deaths, and flailing personal relationships outside of the hospital because of the amount of time spent inside it. As a student, I hadn’t yet seen
these things and from the outside this all seemed unrealistic: How, I asked myself, could this even be close to the reality of a modern academic hospital?

Now that I am through my third and fourth years of medical school as well as my first year of residency I have re-read the book, and I thought it would be
interesting to reconsider my initial impression. Indeed, the novel is so much more relevant to me now. In order to illustrate this, it is worth looking at
just a few passages.

I got more and more tired, more and more caught up in the multitudinous bowel runs and lab tests. The jackhammers of the Wing of Zock had been wiggling my
ossicles for twelve hours. I hadn’t had time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and there was still more work to do. I hadn’t even had time for the toilet,
for each time I’d gone in, the grim beeper had routed me out. I felt discouraged, worn. (p. 41)

Though slightly hyperbolic, all this is scarily familiar to me. On some days there is so much work to do that one doesn’t really have time to sit down and
eat. Or, when one does finally have a spare moment (after 6 or 7 hours of running around), animal instincts take over and without being cognizant of
it one ravenously attacks any food available. Some of us stick granola bars in our white coat pockets to prevent this sudden and unfettered hunger attack
but even this is just enough to make us want more. Occasionally, the issue is that one forgets to eat and when we smell the trays of food being
delivered to hospital rooms during lunchtime, our intestines do somersaults, squeeze, shiver, and groan as we are reminded of our baser needs. We experience
pangs of hunger that occur throughout the day because meals, and even glasses of water if one has time for them, are far apart. I have, in multiple instances, come home at night or in the morning and stood for a moment in the kitchen while having an internal debate with myself: Am I more tired or
hungry?

And Shem’s line about the “grim beeper” made me laugh out loud. I remember twice walking into the bathroom to answer the call of nature, when suddenly the shrill sound from my pager or phone prompts me to abort the mission, walk out, and
answer the other call.

The talk was, on the part of the doctors, all medicine….

The accuracy of this is stunning. When residents get together or when we have a spare moment to chat at work, we don’t usually talk about politics or
friendships or relationships so much as we talk about medical stories. We trade tales of difficult procedures or illnesses or we tell hilarious medical jokes. Friends who spend time with us
outside of the hospital are shocked at how much we speak about work with each other. But a resident’s life revolves around the hospital. We (almost)
literally reside at the hospital and the eventful aspects of our lives usually occur in the healthcare setting. As one can see from even a quick glance at
some posts on this blog, medicine is filled with human drama, humor, sickness, death, and life. How do we avoid talking about all that in our spare time?

The House of God found it difficult to let some young terminal guy die without pain, in peace. Even though Putzel and the Runt had agreed to let the Man
With Agonal Respirations die that night, his kidney consult, a House red-hot Slurper named Mickey who’d been a football star in college, came along, went
to see the Agonal Man, roared back to us and paged the Runt STAT. Mickey was foaming at the mouth, mad as hell that his “case” was dying…. Mickey called a
cardiac arrest. From all over the House, terns and residents stormed into the room to save the Man With Agonal Respirations from a painless peaceful
death. (p. 245)

These can be traumatic moments, indeed (I have written about coding patients herehere, and here). Shem’s point is that we in the hospital sometimes do
chest compressions on patients we surely will not be able to resuscitate or, if they are resuscitated, will be dependent on a ventilator and unconscious
for the remainder of their days. Do we try to revive a 90-year-old with metastatic cancer to the spine and brain? Or do we try instead to make the patient as comfortable as possible?
From the patient’s side (and the patient’s family’s side) the difficulty, which seems insurmountable, is in accepting the end. For most physicians, like the
narrator of The House of God, the difficulty lies in cracking ribs and sending electrical shocks through someone’s body with no clear purpose. In fact, we
frequently ask families to let us make their loved ones comfortable, at least, before they pass away. But that is not always the decision that is made.
And in the passage above Shem satirically chides those who believe the best course is always to be as aggressive as possible.

Eat My Dust Eddie, being run ragged in the death-house, the MICU [Medical Intensive Care Unit], looked awful, and was talking about his previous night on
call: “I was admitting my sixth cardiac arrest and I got this call from the E.W. — Hooper, it was you — saying that there was a guy down there who’d
arrested and you were thinking of sending him to me if he survived. I hung up the phone, got down on my knees, and prayed: Please, God, kill that guy! I
was on my knees, I mean ON MY KNEES!” (p. 126) 

My colleagues and I have never wished that anyone would die. But, undoubtedly, we all identify with the feeling of being overwhelmed. When you’re exhausted
and still admitting patient after patient and trying to work them up for a new diagnosis while also taking care of other patients on the service, writing notes,
fielding pages or phone calls from nurses, drawing blood, and doing CPR, there are moments when it feels as if there is no more time or effort left to give.
You are working with rope with no slack or trying desperately to tread water. This is especially true in a place like the Intensive Care Unit, where patients are sicker
and require closer monitoring. During those moments, we beseech the hospital gods: “please, no more admissions, please no more.” Or, “please don’t let
anyone get sicker than they are.” It’s not every day one feels this way, but it is often enough that the sentiment is familiar.

*   *   *

When The House of God was first published it was not received well by Dr. Bergman’s colleagues and peers. As he tells it,

… my book The House of God enraged many among the older
generation of doctors. I was maligned and disliked. The book was censored by medical school deans, who often kept me from speaking at their schools. None
of it really bothered me, though. I was secure in the understanding that all I had done was tell the truth about medical training.

Thus, the book is not only a brilliant and witty piece of satirical literature, it is also a “fiction of resistance,” as Bergman describes it. Its most sinister and clueless
characters are the ones in charge. And in many cases their worship at the altar of medicine and science damages their relationships with patients,
residents, or each other.

Much has been written about this aspect of the book in recent years: Dr. Howard Brody of the University of Texas Medical Branch

wrote about its relevance in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics in 2011
. Dr. Suzanne Koven, a primary care physician,

interviewed Dr. Bergman about the book for the Boston Globe in 2013
. Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, discussed the book in a piece for the New York Times in 2009.

The reason for this interest may have something to do with a story Bergman tells in his own 2012 piece for The Atlantic:

And then one day I got a letter forwarded from my publisher, which included the line:
“I’m on call in a V.A. Hospital in Tulsa, and if it weren’t for your book I’d kill myself.”
I realized that I could be helpful to doctors who were going through the brutality of training. And so I began what has turned out to be a 35-year odyssey
of speaking out, around the world, about resisting the inhumanity of medical training.

But the culture in medicine has changed dramatically since this book was written. Institutions are far more humane than they once were. Nevertheless, what we see and how much we need to see cannot change. Doctors ought to be exposed to a wide range of pathology; they
must be exposed to death. This is how one learns to be a great doctor, to diagnose obscure diseases, to treat common diseases successfully, and to save
lives during a hectic code in the hospital.

No matter how authority figures treat residents, Bergman’s book will always be precious to future generations of doctors. Like any great novel it identifies common yet significant human experiences. The author tells us, as it were, that “yes, I know
exactly what this is like and I laughed at the same things you did. I made the same mistakes. I had the same
difficulties.” Such commiseration ameliorates that unsettling feeling residents experience: the feeling that the hospital is a rabbit hole
that spirals into a detached and harrowing yet hilarious world. And, because of The House of God, there will always be a shared understanding
among residents and readers of the triumphs and tragedies accompanied by this feeling.

A Tour of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

—Alan Seeger, I Have a Rendezvous with Death

The Intensive Care Unit is an uncomfortable place. It is where the sickest patients in
the hospital reside. Because many of the patients require emergency medical interventions or close monitoring, the layout resembles that of the emergency department (ED). Patient rooms encircle a nurse’s station where computers sit on a long table. As in the ED, each room is filled with machines
projecting vital signs, EKG tracings, IV fluid rates, and other information towards the physicians and nurses. And the nurses in “the unit” (as it’s
commonly referred to) are always active, checking in on patients throughout the day and night.

There are many different types of intensive care units: some for patients with heart issues (cardiac ICU), others for patients with neurological issues
(neuro ICU), pulmonary or general medical issues (medical ICU), surgical issues (surgical ICU) and cancers (oncology ICU). What we see in each unit,
however, is equally disturbing. And what follows are the some of the things one might see (and which I have seen) in different ICUs over the course of a
day.

Image via Shutterstock

In the neuro critical care unit, one patient lies unconscious with a massive and deadly brain bleed. In another bed across the room, a patient with a rapidly expanding
brain tumor cries out in searing pain from a headache. In the cardiac intensive care unit, a patient, hours after receiving a ventricular assist device (VAD), a device which helps the heart’s ventricles pump out
blood after being weakened by disease, receives chest compressions from a nurse as he goes into cardiac arrest. Another unconscious patient in the far
corner of the room is on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, after
having massive heart and lung failure. ECMO takes blood out of the venous system, oxygenates it in a machine and then pumps it back into the arterial
system, thus bypassing the heart and the lungs. In the normal circulatory system, blood goes from the veins into the right side of the heart and
subsequently to the lungs where it is oxygenated, flows to the left side of the heart and is pumped into circulation to nourish the body’s tissues. ECMO
temporarily maintains circulation until the patient’s heart and lungs can function on their own.

In the oncology unit, a middle-aged cachetic patient lies face-up in the bed, staring at the ceiling while fungal and bacterial infections cause his blood
pressure to drop and heart rate to increase. Despite the medications used to prevent these infections in cancer patients with very low white blood cell
counts, sometimes the microbes sneak by. And because chemotherapy used to treat cancer destroys white blood cells, the cancer patient has nothing left with
which to fight off the infection. Even the most minor bacterial invasion can be fatal for these patients, as it eventually was for him. Meanwhile, in the next room, another
patient had just passed away and her family crowded around her bed sobbing and mourning their loss while holding the expired patient’s
hand, hoping for the return of warmth.

Unusual sounds percolate from room to room in these dank areas of the hospital. Most noticeably, IV poles beep
constantly as they run out of their fluids or medications. Cardiac monitors sound alarms as patient heart rates dip too low, rise above a normal level, or register abnormal
rhythms. Some patients moan and scream, losing all sense of time and of themselves. Or, perhaps they curse and threaten nurses while withdrawing from
alcohol. Others vomit and pass gas. Some patients demand the impossible: “get me out of here!” or “leave me alone!” Sometimes patients need to be strapped
down to the bed because they pull out their IVs as they wail and moan and thrash about. During the day, minimal light shines into the unit and it is
tainted by the sickness and suffering which pollute the air and tint the windows. Foul smells, which I wrote about here, are most potent in the ICU. Many ICU patients,
though washed by nurses, have not bathed in weeks. The stench of sweat, stool, and blood permeates the unit when nurses change patients’ diapers,
suck accumulating mucous out of patients’ mouths, and clean up blood-stained sheets.

And if you think it’s bad for providers, imagine what patients experience. The ICU must feel like a kind of hell on earth. Sleep is rare when your
neighbors expectorate, choke, vomit, and shout, and nurses and physicians constantly wake you up, draw blood from your veins, and examine you to ensure your
mind still functions correctly. Some patients can’t eat or drink because they need surgery (it is safer to put patients under anesthesia for surgery when
they have not eaten because food will not come up from the stomach and choke the patient or travel into the lungs while they are unconscious) and so they go to bed hungry and
thirsty. A patient may even go to sleep not knowing whether he or she will wake in the morning. You may be one of those who
has a rendezvous with death tomorrow; you may be one of those who survives; you may hang on by a thread for weeks. Who would ever want to end up in an
ICU?

And yet, it is in the ICU that patients receive the most fastidious care. Nurses watch over only one or two patients and thus can keep a close eye on them.
Physicians trained in the art of emergency procedures, like intubation, are always around
and watchful. Nobody will be more attentive to your medical needs than an ICU team, which monitors every sign of life you emit: breaths, heartbeats,
skin color, blood pressure, electrolyte levels, blood counts, infectious disease cultures from your urine to your spinal fluid. The advantage of being in
the ICU is that you receive the care that you need even if it is in a frightening environment. I hope I never have to be there, but if I am severely ill at
some point in my life, the ICU is the place I would choose to be.

The Purpose of Medicine

American medicine is not well. Though it remains the most widely respected of professions, though it has never been more competent technically, it is in
trouble, both from without and from within.
—Dr. Leon R. Kass

As a newly minted medical school graduate, I am suddenly faced with much more responsibility. Now I must write prescriptions for patients, write notes
on patients, and know what to do during an emergency. It is all very daunting. While anxious and excited about these new responsibilities, I am also
confused about what I’m doing it all for.

I don’t mean that I’m confused about why I chose medicine. True, medical school was incredibly difficult, but there will be many rewards down the road. I
mean to ask: What is the purpose of medicine? It is queer that one should spend four years learning medicine and not know one’s purpose. But no one ever
discussed this question in medical school. Now, after graduation, the question’s importance is suddenly apparent. My future actions depend on the answer to
it.

Some answers are implied during our schooling. The purpose of medicine that seems obvious is to cure the patient of disease. After all, this is
why patients come to the doctor. But sometimes, we also attempt to make people happy. I’ve seen patients receive IV fluids because it will
“make them feel like they’re getting treatment.” I’ve seen children receive antibiotics even when they didn’t need them, simply because the parents wanted
something done for their children. I’ve also seen a patient receive a “therapeutic” EKG — his chest hurt and despite the fact that there was no way he was
having a heart attack, he received an EKG to “calm him down.” The goals of medicine, according to my own limited experience then, are at least twofold: the
elimination of disease and, more broadly, patient satisfaction even when it has nothing to do with disease.

Dr. Leon Kass, a teacher and bioethicist trained as a physician (and a New Atlantis contributor), wrote about the purpose of medicine in the 1975 essay “Regarding the End of Medicine and the Pursuit of Health”
in The Public Interest (available here as a PDF). Though written forty years ago this summer, the essay is as relevant and necessary as ever. I’ll highlight some of Kass’s major points to help us think through my
question about medicine’s purpose.

The fact that the purpose of the medical profession is not often considered is, Kass points out, deeply troubling. Indeed, without an
answer to the question, Kass writes, “medicine is at risk of becoming merely a set of powerful means, and the doctor at risk of becoming merely a
technician and engineer of the body, a scalpel for hire, selling his services upon demand.” This would spell the end of medicine, Kass believes — “there
will be an end to medicine unless there remains an end for medicine.”

Kass proceeds to tackle the issue by critiquing some of the goals of medicine that people sometimes assume. Happiness, he argues, should not be the
purpose of medicine. Kass offers some examples of physicians attempting to make patients happy: a surgeon might remove a woman’s breast so she can improve her
golf swing, or a family physician might administer amphetamine injections to people who want to
feel good. These interventions are aimed solely at gratification and thus are not even concerned with pathology.

Even the prolongation of life or the prevention of death per se should not be the goal of medicine, Kass argues. This, perhaps, is difficult for us to understand. Indeed,
doctors daily witness death and terminal illness. If we know CPR,
do we withhold it because it’s not our job to prevent death or prolong life? Not at all, but if we believe that the goal of medicine is the
prevention of death, then the logical endpoint of this must be “bodily immortality.” Kass observes that “to be alive and to be healthy
are not the same, though the first is both a condition of the second, and, up to a point, a consequence.”

Anyone’s life can be prolonged now. Machines
breathe for patients. Machines oxygenate patients’ blood. Machines pump blood into the circulatory system. All this occurs regularly in the intensive care unit. But if physicians put patients on these machines indefinitely
solely to keep blood flowing through arteries regardless of the patient’s condition, the mere preservation of life, and by extension the job of medicine,
is meaningless.

The goal of medicine, according to Kass, is the preservation of health. The word “health” in English means “wholeness.” It is derived from the
Old English hal, which is also the origin of “whole.” For Kass “wholeness” involves a “fully formed mature organism … composed of parts. It is a structure and not a
heap.” Additionally, wholeness includes the “working-well of the work done” by a person’s body. Thus, health consists of a proper balance of parts that
make up the whole and the workings of the whole human being. In order to demonstrate his point, Kass takes the example of a squirrel. A healthy squirrel is
not just a squirrel with a normal digestive tract, it is a squirrel who acts and looks like a squirrel. It leaps from tree to tree, runs, gathers, and
buries. All of these characteristics tell us that this is a fully-functioning, whole squirrel—a healthy squirrel. Similarly, a healthy human being acts
and looks like a human being. While this concept may seem vague, Kass’s point is well-taken; a healthy human is “recognizable if not definable.”

A good example of preserving health is the well-child visit in a pediatrician’s office, where physicians check for normal growth and development. This
demonstrates that “health is a good in its own right, not merely a privation of one or all evils.” In other words, pediatricians don’t just see children
who are sick (though they do that, too); they also see children who are healthy. And in doing so they help make sure that these children remain healthy. Family medicine physicians do something similar with adults. They see their patients on a regular basis
to ensure that patients are exercising, eating right, and have no abnormal blood counts or cholesterol numbers, and that they are otherwise doing well.

Check-ups like these are as important as giving a patient antibiotics for pneumonia. Medicine involves figuring out how to maintain the excellent functioning of a human
being. It necessarily includes what today we call preventive medicine: vaccines, cessation of smoking, a healthy diet, an active lifestyle. This view of medicine necessarily involves the patient as a partner to the physician: both work together to help maintain the health of the patient.

Many of the things we expect from medicine today do not fall under Kass’s definition of health. The injection of Botox to make one look younger, for example, does not
involve health in any way whatsoever. Having wrinkles in one’s face does not affect the excellent functioning of a person. Endocrinologists, plastic
surgeons, psychiatrists, and many other specialists and generalists all deal with patients who request the kinds of procedures that go beyond health. Whether these procedures ought
to be available is a completely separate question from whether these services fall under the purview of the physician. If physicians perform them for
patients, then physicians, I think, become service providers to the highest bidder. They become technicians at the whim of patients. (Kass addressed some of these same themes about the difference between therapy and enhancement in his 2003 New Atlantis essay “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls.”)

To be sure, Kass’s 1975 essay does not go into the kind of detailed, philosophical argument that we might hope for. Kass himself admits this when he writes,
“large questions still remain” and “I am not seeking a precise definition of health.” But he gives us a basic and firm outline of the purpose of medicine
and we would be remiss if we didn’t study this purpose carefully. Without a purpose,
medicine lacks moral certainty or a soul. None of us, within medicine or without, can afford that.