Look at last century reminds us of medicine's victories


In recent times, I've been digging into the past few generations of my ancestry, and in the process, learning a fair amount about how my great-great grandmothers and fathers, great-aunts and uncles the link coped with daily life. Along the way, I've been reminded just how miraculous a standard of healthcare I enjoy, and how seldom we have a chance to meditate on what medical science has accomplished.

By no means am I suggesting that efforts to cut needless deaths to zero, eliminate never events and improve preventative care, to name a few initiates, are some kind of frill. When you're entrusted with people's lives, it's important to keep raising the bar--and even one needless case of patient harm or unnecessary death is more than we should tolerate.

That being said, it's useful to stop and think about what we've accomplished. When I look at death certificates from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, I certainly see deaths from causes that can still be fatal today (such as cardiac failure and lung cancer), but there's also countless deaths on the records from what are, today, completely treatable conditions like bronchitis, or conditions that just don't occur anymore, such as consumption. 

What's more, infant mortality was off the charts. When you look at census reports from the early 1900s, which ask families how many children are living versus those who were born, a staggering number cite one, two or three deceased babies in their history. Of course, when you consider that 1912, the year my grandmother was born, there was no safe anesthesia (much less an epidural for her mom), no C-sections, no neonatal intensive care unit to cope with disease of prematurity like jaundice and breathing troubles, that's not much of a surprise.

Then, imagine a world in which antibiotics have not yet been invented, much less the countless drugs that make many chronic conditions--such as, say, diabetes--into manageable situations rather than killers. It simply boggles the mind.

And of course, there was none of the amazing array of diagnostic and surgical procedures we can deploy today, from stents to MRIs to complex blood analysis in cutting-edge labs. We seldom reflect on it, but we have perhaps the most information on the condition of the human body in the history of the world. In great grandma Katherine's day, they were working completely in the dark.

I could go on and on, to book length, but you get the point. By all means, let's crack the whip on infection control and preventive care and quality improvement. Let's set the standard at having no never-events and no unnecessary deaths, ever. But it doesn't hurt to appreciate what we've got. - Anne

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