The Case For Reductionist Medicine..or..Let’s Not Jumble The Message

Reductionist Medicine is based on a piecemeal scientific dissection of disease to determine the cause of symptoms and the treatment. Lots of people don’t like this approach. Why?

  • humans are complex organisms
  • complex organisms are not simple
  • if you only look for simple causes then you ignore the whole person
  • if you ignore the whole person then your treatment is incomplete

Even William Osler, one of the best physicians of the 19th Century, said “It’s more important to know what sort of patient has a disease than what sort of disease a patient has”.

But you know, it really is all about disease. Examples: you’ve got worsening abdominal pain – Reductionist Medicine diagnoses acute appendicitis. You have it removed, you don’t die, easy. Or, you have recurrent infections, chronic sinusitis, asthma, dermatitis, food allergy, hypertension, obesity and depression – Reductionist Medicine determines you have an immunodeficiency, you are allergic (atopic) with sensitivity to egg, house dust mite and cats, your airway disease and infected skin are triggered by both your immune and allergic problem, your hypertension is persistent, your obesity morbid, and your depression severe. You are managed with allergy treatment, immune treatment, drugs and referral to a dietitian for weight loss, you improve but are not cured. In both scenarios, a good doctor will talk to you, maybe not for long, but with empathy.

It’s NOT about normal health. If you are healthy, and you seek constant treatment while you remain healthy, then you are one of the “worried well”. It’s not hard to reduce (not eliminate) your risk of losing your health. You know, normal weight, reasonable exercise, no smoking, alcohol in moderation, varied diet, vaccinations, preventative assessments according to age and gender, and so on. There are very little other evidence-based interventions that are useful. In Australia, there are many good General Practitioners who can sort this out for you. We are a lucky country in that respect.

What is the alternative to Reductionist Medicine. Well, at its most banal, it’s called Holistic Medicine, at its most sophisticated, the term Systems Biology is used. A good summary is provided by a Harvard Group in PLOS medicine, presented as two articles called The Limits Of Reductionism In Medicine and The Clinical Applications Of A Systems Approach. I have read these, and many other similar papers, carefully. I am not impressed by a ‘new’ terminology: pseudoscience at its best, mumbo-jumbo when bad. Here is one example from the PLOS papers: “Circadian rhythms are an example of oscillatory behaviour, and complex heart

Ahn AC et al, PLOS Medicine Open Access, July 2006. My comment? I feel that Systems Science is nothing without a Reductionist Approach

rate variability (an example of) chaotic behaviour”. Does this really add to the armamentarium of a skilled Reductionist doctor? No. And you can view a summary of their ideas in the diagram. The more I look at the diagram, the more I see it as an exercise in semantics.

What about psychiatry? Is this the bastion of Holistic Medicine? Not in my opinion. Even in psychoanalysis. There may be little scientific evidence for a lot of statements made, but the good psychobiologists are reductionist in approach. There is a wonderful book called Neurosis And Human Growth by Karen Horney. She was a terrific psychoanalyst. The book looks and feels holistic, nearly 400 pages of intense psychiatric analysis of the whole person. But you know, you can summarize her arguments on personality disorder on one page with a few circles and arrows. I suspect she did that before she wrote the book. It is Reductionism at its best. By the way, if you will allow a digression, my favourite quote from the book which I have mentioned elsewhere is from one of Horney’s patients: ‘If it were not for reality, I would be perfectly all right”

So, let’s get back to our opening statements. Reductionist Medicine often diagnoses and treats disease effectively while recognizing complex interactions in humans, and, when treating disease, will treat the whole person, but only as much as required. And William Osler’s quote? ┬áHis quote may have been accurate in an era without antibiotics, without effective treatment for gastric ulcers, without good blood pressure drugs, and so on. For 2011 I would paraphrase his quote as: “It is AS important to know what sort of patient has a disease AS what sort of disease a patient has”

Pieter Peach’s post on his blog makes some excellent points, tangential but still relevant to these concepts.

Incidentally, Osler also said: “What is the Student but a Lover courting a Fickle Mistress who ever eludes his Grasp”. Is this a Reductionist or Holistic statement? I’ll leave that to you.

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