Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Slow ideas

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Atul Gawande writes well of medical issues—he wrote a famous article on how medical checklists reduce medical errors (and patient deaths), although it is quite difficult to get physicians to use such things (ego problems, primarily). He wrote a book on the same topic: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. And now he addresses the problem of why some improvements in medicine spread rapidly while others don’t spread well at all. Here he is in the New Yorker:

Why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly? Consider the very different trajectories of surgical anesthesia and antiseptics, both of which were discovered in the nineteenth century. The first public demonstration of anesthesia was in 1846. The Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow was approached by a local dentist named William Morton, who insisted that he had found a gas that could render patients insensible to the pain of surgery. That was a dramatic claim. In those days, even a minor tooth extraction was excruciating. Without effective pain control, surgeons learned to work with slashing speed. Attendants pinned patients down as they screamed and thrashed, until they fainted from the agony. Nothing ever tried had made much difference. Nonetheless, Bigelow agreed to let Morton demonstrate his claim.

On October 16, 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Morton administered his gas through an inhaler in the mouth of a young man undergoing the excision of a tumor in his jaw. The patient only muttered to himself in a semi-conscious state during the procedure. The following day, the gas left a woman, undergoing surgery to cut a large tumor from her upper arm, completely silent and motionless. When she woke, she said she had experienced nothing at all.

Four weeks later, on November 18th, Bigelow published his report on the discovery of “insensibility produced by inhalation” in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Morton would not divulge the composition of the gas, which he called Letheon, because he had applied for a patent. But Bigelow reported that he smelled ether in it (ether was used as an ingredient in certain medical preparations), and that seems to have been enough. The idea spread like a contagion, travelling through letters, meetings, and periodicals. By mid-December, surgeons were administering ether to patients in Paris and London. By February, anesthesia had been used in almost all the capitals of Europe, and by June in most regions of the world.

There were forces of resistance, to be sure. Some people criticized anesthesia as a “needless luxury”; clergymen deplored its use to reduce pain during childbirth as a frustration of the Almighty’s designs. James Miller, a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon who chronicled the advent of anesthesia, observed the opposition of elderly surgeons: “They closed their ears, shut their eyes, and folded their hands. . . . They had quite made up their minds that pain was a necessary evil, and must be endured.” Yet soon even the obstructors, “with a run, mounted behind—hurrahing and shouting with the best.” Within seven years, virtually every hospital in America and Britain had adopted the new discovery.

Sepsis—infection—was the other great scourge of surgery. It was the single biggest killer of surgical patients, claiming as many as half of those who underwent major operations, such as a repair of an open fracture or the amputation of a limb. Infection was so prevalent that suppuration—the discharge of pus from a surgical wound—was thought to be a necessary part of healing.

In the eighteen-sixties, the Edinburgh surgeon Joseph Lister read a paper by Louis Pasteur laying out his evidence that spoiling and fermentation were the consequence of microorganisms. Lister became convinced that the same process accounted for wound sepsis. Pasteur had observed that, besides filtration and the application of heat, exposure to certain chemicals could eliminate germs. Lister had read about the city of Carlisle’s success in using a small amount of carbolic acid to eliminate the odor of sewage, and reasoned that it was destroying germs. Maybe it could do the same in surgery.

During the next few years, he perfected ways to use carbolic acid for cleansing hands and wounds and destroying any germs that might enter the operating field. The result was strikingly lower rates of sepsis and death. You would have thought that, when he published his observations in a groundbreaking series of reports inThe Lancet, in 1867, his antiseptic method would have spread as rapidly as anesthesia.

Far from it. The surgeon J. M. T. Finney recalled that, when he was a trainee at Massachusetts General Hospital two decades later, hand washing was still perfunctory. Surgeons soaked their instruments in carbolic acid, but they continued to operate in black frock coats stiffened with the blood and viscera of previous operations—the badge of a busy practice. Instead of using fresh gauze as sponges, they reused sea sponges without sterilizing them. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2013 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Medical

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