If We Can't Measure It, It Doesn't Exist

By Abraham Verghese

2898183014_7148fd4f21.jpgI am at the First Stanford Symposium on Bedside Medicine, and we have the world's leading experts on the diagnostic examination gathered here.  It is a small group who still believe there is value in examining the patient, even in this era of imaging and technology.

An anthropologist from Mars looking at our hospitals might conclude that the 'work' of medicine takes place in rooms far removed from the patient, typically in front of a computer screen. The actual patient and the person-hood of the patient is pushed to the margin of medical attention while the 'iPatient', the virtual patient rules.

Last night we talked about the ritual of the exam, and how important that ritual is. Rituals are about transformation, and the careful exam has all the elements of ritual, including a sacred space, a ceremonial garb (white coat and patient gown), a routine that is mysterious to the patient and includes disrobing and touch (which in any other context would be assault). Rituals are about transformation (think wedding, baptism etc) and this ritual when done well, is transformative, it establishes the physician-patient bond, it recognizes the body of the patient (the soma as opposed to the image of the body), and it is therapeutic, particularly in chronic disease, where the ritual repeated at every visit conveys to the patient that we are with them on the journey, we will not abandon them.

Everyone agreed to this aspect of the exam, the importance of ritual.  Then why is it that we so rarely emphasize the importance of the ritual when trying to defend and preserve what is a threatened craft? I think it is because this ritual (like love, steadfastness, loyalty, courage) is not easily measured, and in a medical world that seems to be ruled by psychometricians, if it ain't measured it doesn't exist.

But hope springs eternal, and this little group is determined to bring about change.

(Photo: Flickr User mynameisharsha)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/09/if-we-cant-measure-it-it-doesnt-exist/26988/