Medical Magical Thinking
After seeing a doctor and getting a prescription, there’s often a sense of relief that comes over the patient. There’s an expectation that now the doctor has looked over the symptoms and settled upon a course of action, a return to health is not just inevitable, it’s quickly approaching. Simply take the drug at the times listed on the bottle, and a complete recovery will swoop down and take hold almost in the moment.
Written out, it’s clear that there’s a lot of magical thinking involved in such expectations. Although we often feel we are well beyond that primitive witchdoctor mentality in our medicine, there is still much to be seen in our psychological response to treatment. For instance, at times, placebos can be as effective as an actual course of drugs. Simply believing a doctor and his or her drugs have these powers make it so.
In truth, medicine doesn’t really work that like at all, which seems obvious, once again, when stated so bluntly. Medications can work or not work depending on the individual body chemistry of the patient. Side effects are possible, some minor, some extreme. On commercials, when these are highlighted, they are often dismissed almost as if they are fairytales, with the potential users certain if those symptoms exist they will not happen to them, yet, statistically, even the most extreme side effects must happen to someone.
Again, the magical thinking takes hold. Extreme side effects are fairy tales and medicine is magic that will certainly make a person healthy. Absurd on the surface, but all too often believed uncritically all the same.
The truth is, of course, that medicine is sloppy, that quick recovery exists alongside extreme and unexpected side effects, which at the same time exists alongside the drug making little or no impact at all.
While it’s a truism that everyone is different, people rarely extend this to medicine. Personalities are expected to be unique, but the reaction to drugs is expected to be uniform. The quality of care is also expected to be uniformly good. Should a doctor manifest confidence in his or her bedside manner, there is a general assumption that whatever he or she says has the sage wisdom of all of human learning.
Once again, this is false. Doctors, like all specialists and experts, have areas they understand better than others. With so many new drugs and new studies on diseases taking place, a doctor simply cannot be up to date on everything. Doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals make mistakes just like people in any other profession.
It’s important to recognize these points of magical thinking and attack them. In order to have a healthier and more successful relationship with medicine, recognize its limitations and learn to watch out for potential pitfalls. This will lead in time to better outcomes for individuals and whole societies.