Welcome back to NH21 weekly, the platform for a natural health practitioner’s musings on global health related news and events.
This week, word that Mr. John Hunter, former physician to non-other than King George III, has been acknowledged as “one of medicines most influential surgeons” after doctors at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital confirmed the accuracy a cancer diagnosis he made in 1776. (1)
A remarkable feat given the limited technology available at the time; one of many achievements from a man credited with “moving the medical discipline from butchery to a science.” Mr. Hunter was indeed a pioneer, and butchery a fair description of medical practice in the years preceding his valuable endeavor.
Yet all innovators, as they say, stand on the shoulders of giants. Diagnosis would be impossible if not for the scientific field of Anatomy (taken from the Greek “to dissect”), which studies the structures of the human body.
Anatomy developed in the 16th century, against great opposition from religious leaders who deemed it heresy; forcing early innovators such as Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) to practice their craft in secret, and sentencing to death those found guilty of mutilating cadavers in the name of medical research.
Diagnosis today is “the process of determining the nature of a disorder by considering the patient’s signs and symptoms, medical background and, where necessary, the results of laboratory tests.” (2)
But Hunter was hardly the first to clinically identify a medical condition. Examples of diagnosis from ancient Egypt reportedly date from at least 2000 years BC, and there exists a written Babylonian medical textbook penned by one Esagil-kin-apli more than 3000 years ago.
Even with modern technology, accurate diagnosis is extremely challenging because many signs and symptoms are broad-based and nonspecific. For example, redness of the skin or abdominal pains can be signs of numerous disorders and do not, by themselves, tell the healthcare professional what is actually wrong with the patient.
Health specialists new and old still have to, at least partly, utilize intuitive skills of observation, logic and rationality in the diagnosis of an illness and even then, precise diagnosis offers little in explanation of the underlying cause of a particular disorder.
It does however, in the orthodox medical paradigm, almost guarantee a series of prescription drugs; which is a concern for those who are uneasy of the relationship between pharmaceutical giants and public health policy makers.
Misdiagnosis by physicians is a serious and common occurrence in the health industry. The repercussions of a misdiagnosis can have a huge impact upon the life of the person involved and of their friends and family.
Figures vary, and many cases go unreported; yet according to America’s National Centre for Policy Analysis, diagnostic errors are the leading cause of medical malpractice litigation. (3)
Also, audited figures from Britain’s National Health Service Litigation Authority show that in the financial year 2014-15, insurance claims citing ‘wrong diagnosis’ totaled an incredible GBP 193,680,744. (4)
So what to do? It hardly seems fair to apportion blame on well-intended doctors attempting to assist patients from all walks of life, who arrive at their rooms with a multitude of health issues; especially given the time constraints of the consultation process, and societies penchant for directing legal proceedings at the unfortunate healer who may have inadvertently made an erroneous call.
Even if a person does receive an accurate diagnosis, there is the issue of polypharmacy to consider; being the concurrent use of several medications for various different ailments. Although each may work independently for the specific symptom they are indicated for, there is no possible way of determining the interactions between them when taken in combination.
Could it be the case that a skin rash, for example, might result from the body attempting to rid itself of myriad synthetic compounds polluting its bloodstream, having been ingested by the patient in the name of healing?
Clinical markers are an important part of the diagnostic process, and it goes without saying that in order to heal, one needs to discern exactly what is wrong. Yet the contrived isolation of laboratory tests can never accurately reflect the complexity of the human body in its normal, daily environment; any more than taking an individual species out of the rainforest and studying its behaviour alone in a cage would explain much about its true nature.
John Hunter rightly deserves posthumous plaudits for advancing the field of medicine, and respect for levels of perception that were years ahead of his time. Yet societies faith in orthodox medicine and the virtues of clinical diagnosis may potentially be misplaced.
Anatomy teaches us that structure, function and form are mutually inter-related. Consequently, emotional disturbances can affect internal organs, spinal problems can affect the gut, nutrition can affect emotions and so on.
Health, and disease, stem from a complex interaction of physical, emotional, genetic, environmental, dietary and lifestyle factors that can rarely, if ever, be allocated a name comprehensive enough to describe the series of events that lead to the need to diagnose at all.
A natural approach to healthcare can prevent minor symptoms from developing into more chronic conditions, provided affirmative action is taken by the patient, who must be encouraged to take ownership and personal responsibility for the maintenance of their own mind, body and environment.
(2) Oxford University Press, 2010, Concise Medical Dictionary.