We don’t have all of the answers, but that’s not our biggest problem.
Thirty years ago, in preparation for hunting season, I went to a shooting range to practice with my bow. I felt fine. When I finished, I got in my truck and began to back out. When I pressed on the brake, I felt a sharp pain in my foot. My first instinct was to go over what I did walking back and forth to pull arrows from the target. Had I twisted my foot, did I trip on something? No, I had not injured my foot in any way.
When I got home, I took off my shoe and looked. My big toe was slightly swollen and slightly red. It looked like gout. I took ibuprofen. I was better by the next day. I never had another attack until this week.
I was at a friend’s house drinking wine. My knee suddenly began to hurt. I walk or jog 6-8 miles per day, so my first thought was that all the exercise was catching up to me. I took ibuprofen. It got better. But the next day my ankle suddenly became very painful; then my wrist hurt a bit. I remembered my experience with gout. I treated myself for gout, and got better.
I feel very fortunate to live in a time when gout can be easily treated. One hundred years ago, I would have been in big trouble. Which is not to say that I would not have taken medicine in an attempt to get relief. I would have tried a variety of products that claimed to help but did no good.
Today, we can treat so many illnesses that were brutal and deadly in the past. A long time ago, all children with type 1 diabetes died. Today, we have effective therapy — insulin. When I was a resident in the early 1980s, we had no specific way of treating a heart attack. Today, we can place a stent and reverse the pathological process.
In the past, something as simple as poison ivy could make a person’s life miserable. Today, we can knock it out in a short time. Modern medicine can do amazing things. To a large extent, it can do these amazing things because of effective biomedical science.
However, it can’t cure everything. Nor can it beat death. The amazing accomplishments of the medical profession in the last 100 years seem to have led some to believe, or want to believe, that doctors can solve all medical problems. This belief system came to bear with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many expected the medical profession to step up and solve the problem. When it didn’t, disappointment arose. Then accusations began to fly. Some claimed that there were conspiracies involving Big Pharma and doctors. Others claimed there were cures that were being suppressed by the government.
Some doctors and scientists responded to this by trying to appease. They turned to in vitro data — such as the zinc/hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) interaction — to claim that zinc and HCQ would work wonders. When other doctors and scientists pointed out flaws in that data, they were attacked. It was another conspiracy. I even heard accusations that this was a plot by Bill Gates for population control.
Some doctors also turned to poor, anecdotal trials with HCQ that supposedly showed benefit in a few patients. This led quite a few to believe that HCQ was a wonder drug. Once the exaggerations about HCQ came out, it could no longer be found in pharmacies. The panic was just that strong.
Everyone seemed to get caught up in the panic mindset, and then work under the notion that a lack of clear medical success just can’t be possible in the 21st century. Many patients in intensive care units across the country were being put on HCQ, steroids, remdesivir, anti-IL-6 medication, vitamin C, and whatever else seemed like it might do something.
Many patients who were put on that medication cocktail died, because there was no legitimate science behind this approach — whether it helped was unclear.
However, over time, it became more clear that steroids helped. It became more clear that HCQ did not help. Such revelations led to more reasonable, though not entirely proven, therapeutic approaches. But because the less scientific approaches had so much hype in the beginning, and because the panic was so strong, getting away from them has been fraught with problems and accusations, and even physical threats.
Sadly, some of these accusations and threats were fueled by irresponsible doctors in academic medical centers. Misinformation was fed to the public, and the public, being not well-versed in biomedical research, latched onto the credentials of these doctors rather than seeing through their hysterical and misguided arguments about HCQ and such.
The internet and the free flow of information allows many who don’t really understand the ins and outs of biomedical research and clinical medicine to read something that sounds good and believe it because it satisfies psychological needs. This is a clear pattern of behavior when it comes to HCQ.
But it is not just irresponsible people in academic medical centers who contribute to this process. Doctors, many of whom post on medical blogs, accuse anyone who says we should slow down and evaluate our therapy of “wanting to do nothing” or “not caring about the thousands who are dying.” Even well-intentioned doctors get caught up in this need to seem like something is being done, and so they order all sorts of useless tests.
One such useless test being ordered more commonly in COVID patients is an MRI of the heart. One study in a few patients comes out that shows that COVID can affect the heart, and the next thing you know everybody with COVID needs a heart MRI. Whether the MRI is a reliable test for this is unclear. What we do with the information from the MRI is unclear. It just makes some doctors and some patients feel good to engage in such useless practices.
This pattern of behavior, the pattern of engaging in useless practices to give the appearance of care, is quite common in the profession of medicine. I find it interesting that it has not been challenged by progressives, like those so interested in the Green New Deal. The environmental harm done along these lines by misguided doctors might do as much or more environmental harm than fracking — but at least with fracking you get something to show for your efforts.
With out-of-control doctors, ordering useless tests, running MRI machines and CT scans, etc., day in and day out, without valid justifications, produces nothing useful — unless one believes that feeding hypochondriasis and feeding poor medical judgment is useful.
The profession of medicine accomplished great things in the 21st century. These great things came through American exceptionalism. They came through valid biomedical science. These amazing accomplishments led many to believe that the profession of medicine has all the answers.
But it doesn’t. The COVID pandemic has shown us that. I’m sorry that we can’t save everyone. It is tragic. But it will be more tragic if we let our limitations along these lines lead us into a dark place of anger, lack of reason, lack of valid science, and then on to invalid conspiracy theories.
American exceptionalism does not need to die because of COVID. Instead, what needs to die is a type of insanity that makes us think we have all the answers. What needs to die is a type of insanity that makes us think that if we don’t have all the answers, we have to turn to useless testing, unproven therapies, and futile care.
What needs to die is the turning to false prophets and conspiracy theories. The profession of medicine has proven that it can do a very good job combating illness.
Good doctors are trying hard to deal with and solve this pandemic. When a type of insanity gets in the way, it is a problem.
W. Robert Graham, MD, completed medical school and residency at UTHSC-Dallas (Parkland Hospital) and served as chief resident. Graham received a National Institutes of Health fellowship at the Salk Institute for oncogene research in 1985. He was a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine from 1998 through 2016. In retirement, he enjoys writing and ranching.