Giving the Stethoscope a Makeover

It's high time for an upgrade in medicine.

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Like the caduceus and the lab coat, the stethoscope is a symbol of modern medicine. But some doctors are starting to doubt its worth. “It’s a relic,” said Eric Topol, a cardiologist and geneticist who directs the Scripps Translational Institute in La Jolla, California. In the video above, he demonstrates how to use a new alternative: a small ultrasound machine that looks like a flip phone.

In an interview with Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific on Thursday, Topol scathingly criticized doctors’ unwillingness to embrace new technologies and involve patients in care. “There’s an unwillingness to let go,” he said. “It’s a deep-seated paternalism – ‘doctor knows best.’ It’s like the 1400s and the high priests before the printing press.”

Topol is also a big believer in the power of genetic sequencing. If people find out what’s in their DNA, he said, they can work to prevent future illness – someone with a predisposition toward melanoma can stay out of the sun, for example. But Topol may be in a small minority. According to the American Medical Association, he said, “95 percent of doctors don’t feel comfortable with genomic data.”

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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