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Catching the beat

Heart and a stethoscope with heartbeat (pulse) symbol in Light blue background  

At a time when diseases were thought to be caused by God’s curse and advanced treatment meant purging and bloodletting, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, started looking for the scientific reasons for disease. He raised a clan of followers who dedicated themselves to the study of clinical medicine and healthcare, governed by a strict “code of conduct” which evolved into the Hippocratic Oath.

Despite the brilliance of Hippocrates and his followers, their strategy failed miserably. All their efforts to popularise medical treatment were rejected by the public. People did not want to go to a medical man because there was an easy way out: the “miracle woman”.

Panacea was one, born into a well-known family of doctors. Her parents and four sisters were all in the healthcare business. But she was different. Her sisters Hygieia dealt with sanitation, Laso with rehabilitation, Aceso with holistic healing and Aglae with cosmetology. Going by Greek mythology, Panacea, the daughter of Asclepius, the Greek God of Health, claimed to have a magical formula, a magic potion or one universal cure for all illness.

With modern medicine failing to impress the public, the “medical men” changed their strategy: they relocated to religious premises.

And it worked.

The concept of operating medical services from deep inside the precincts of a place of worship turned out to be a brilliant idea. A start-up that truly stood the test of time. People at large started to accept such treatment easily. An “evidence-based” medicine pill seemed to work best when wrapped in a judicious dose of divinity and faith.

In fact, many of today’s famous hospitals have their origin deeply rooted in religious precincts. Founded in AD 651, Hotel-Dieu (meaning Hostel of Gods) in Paris is one of the world’s oldest standing hospitals. Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts, London) founded in 1123, Saint Thomas Hospital (London) in 1215, and Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam, London) in 1247 had their humble beginnings from religious premises.

Most part of the rigorous training in medical college relies on watching the patient, listening to his problems, feeling the pulse, palpating his abdomen, and listening to his heart. William Osler, the founder of modern medicine, once said, “learning medicine without books is to sail in an uncharted sea; learning medicine without patients is not to go to sea at all.”

The highly infective COVID-19 virus changed all that. Patients with chronic ailments could not travel to meet their doctor for follow-up because of fear of the infection and the strict lockdown.

There was an urgent need to change strategy again. Virtual telephonic medical consultations started a decade ago to expand the reach of highly skilled medical specialists to remote areas, linking a smaller rural clinic to a multispecialty hospital. But during COVID times, teleconsultation found a new role, to provide a safe interaction between the doctor and the patient.

Flicker-free LCD screens, powerful interactive digital platforms with assured privacy, support from local labs, and easy availability of sensors and equipment such as pulse oximeter and electronic BP apparatus changed the whole picture. Surely, nothing can surpass the physical touch of a doctor, but teleconsultation turned out to be the second best.

On this World Heart Day, September 29, the World Heart Federation’s campaign is “harnessing the power of digital health to improve awareness, prevent and manage cardiovascular disease”. From medieval superstition to angioplasty, from magic cure to vaccinations, the transformation of modern medicine has thus been astronomical.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 5:09:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/catching-the-beat/article36664415.ece

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