During one of our first conversations, Brent James told me a story that you wouldn't necessarily expect to hear from a doctor. For most of human history, James explained, doctors have done more harm than good. Their treatments consisted of inducing vomiting or diarrhea and, most common of all, bleeding their patients. James, who is the chief quality officer at Intermountain Healthcare, a network of hospitals and clinics in Utah and Idaho that President Obama and others have described as a model for health reform, then rattled off a list of history books that told the fuller story. Sure enough, these books recount that from the time of Hippocrates into the 19th century, medicine made scant progress. "The amount of death and disease would be less," Jacob Bigelow, a prominent doctor, said in 1835, "if all disease were left to itself."
Yet patients continued to go to doctors, and many continued to put great in faith in medicine. They did so in part because they had no good alternative and in part because, as James put it, they wanted a spiritual counselor with whom they could talk about their health. But there was something else, too. There was a strong intuitive logic behind those old treatments; they seemed to be ridding the body of its ills. They made a lot more sense on their face than the abstract theories about germs and viruses that began to appear in the late 19th century.
So the victory of those theories would require a struggle. The doctors and scientists who tried to overturn centuries of intuitive wisdom were often met with scorn. Hippocrates himself wrote that a physician's judgment mattered more than any external measurement, and the practice of medicine was long organized accordingly.
In the end, of course, the theories about germs and viruses won out. They had the advantage of being correct, and doctors — haltingly and skeptically, but eventually — embraced them. "Medicine adopted the scientific method," James said as we were sitting in his Salt Lake City office, which looks out onto the Utah State Capitol Building and the Wasatch Mountains. "It transformed medicine, and it's easy to make the case." Diphtheria, mumps, measles and polio were conquered, and pneumonia and heart attacks became far less deadly. In 1910, life expectancy at birth in the United States was less than 50 years, and it had not risen much for centuries, James noted. Life expectancy today is 78 years.
But there is one important way in which medicine never quite adopted the scientific method. The explosion of medical research over the last century has produced a dizzying number of treatments for different ailments. For someone with heart disease, there is bypass surgery, stenting or simply drugs and behavior changes. For a man with early-stage prostate cancer, there is surgery, radiation, proton-beam therapy or so-called watchful waiting. To enter mainstream use, any such treatment typically needs to clear a high bar. It will be subject to randomized trials, statistical-significance tests, the peer-review process of academic journals and the scrutiny of government regulators. Yet once a treatment enters the mainstream — once we know whether it works in certain situations — science is largely left behind. The next questions — when to use it and on which patients — become matters of judgment, not measurement. The decision is, once again, left to a doctor's informed intuition.
"There are some real advantages to that," James says, "and in some ways there are some real disadvantages too." The human mind can sometimes do a better job of piecing together amorphous bits of information — diagnosing a disease, for example — than even the most powerful computer. On the other hand, human beings can also be unduly influenced by just a few experiences, like the treatment of an especially memorable patient. As a result, different doctors frequently end up coming up with different answers to the same question. Cardiologists in Davenport, Iowa, are quick to insert stents; cardiologists in Iowa City and Sioux City are not. They can't both be right. Some people with heart disease are getting the best treatment, and some are not. The same is true of debilitating back pain, various cancers and even pregnancy.
The health care debate of 2009 has had so many moving parts that it has sometimes seemed impossible to follow. The crisis behind the debate, though, is about one thing above all: the scattershot nature of American medicine. The fee-for-service payment system — combined with our own instincts as patients — encourages ever more testing and treatments. We're not sure which ones make a difference, but we keep on getting them, and costs keep rising. Millions of people cannot afford insurance as a result. Millions more have had their incomes pinched by rising insurance premiums. Medicare is on a long-term path to insolvency. The American health care system is vastly more expensive than any other country's, but our results are not vastly better.