What Is the Most Underappreciated Medical Invention in History?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Jack Ende, president, American College of Physicians

Light, relatively inexpensive, and so attractive whether draped around the neck or dangling down the chest, the stethoscope connects doctors to patients, and to their organs. What could be more valuable as we struggle with escalating costs in health care and concerns about the eroding relationship between doctors and patients?

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Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor, crispr, and co-author, A Crack in Creation

Blood typing allows us to safely and routinely perform sensitive procedures such as transfusions and transplant surgery. Since its invention more than 100 years ago, it has saved countless lives and continues to underpin our understanding of human biology.

McKinley Belcher III, actor, Mercy Street

Step back in time to any Civil War hospital, and you might witness nearly as many soldiers dying from infection as from battle wounds. Antisepsis changed the game. The advent of medical practitioners cleaning wounds and instruments and maintaining a sterile surgical environment dramatically increased the likelihood that patients would survive.

Graham Roumieu

Christopher Crenner, president, American Association for the History of Medicine

Is the placebo underappreciated? It is certainly overlooked. Placebos benefit almost everyone who receives medical care—quietly bolstering some therapeutic effects while subjecting others to a rigorous test.

Sheri Fink, author, Five Days at Memorial

Oxygen—known as “dephlogisticated air” when first produced in the late 18th century—is now used in applications as diverse as anesthesia, trauma care, and treating asthma attacks and pneumonia. When we lack enough of it—in war zones, during natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, or in impoverished areas of the world—its life-and-death role becomes apparent.

Nita Landry, ob-gyn and co-host, The Doctors

We probably wouldn’t see the term Pap smear in people’s gratitude journals. However, thanks to Pap smears, cervical cancer is no longer one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. In fact, over the past 40 years, the cervical-cancer death rate has decreased by more than 50 percent.

Jillian Michaels, health-and-wellness expert, and creator, the Jillian Michaels app

Automated external defibrillators literally save lives, and anyone is capable of using them with zero training. They should be everywhere, just like smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.

Joe Jimenez, CEO, Novartis

Although we have treatments for malaria, a child in Africa still dies every minute from the disease. Mosquito-blocking bed nets can reduce malaria deaths by 30 percent. Think of how many more lives we could save with these simple yet high-impact shields.

Torrey DeVitto, actor, Chicago Med

The tongue depressor. It’s basically a Popsicle stick, yet among all the technology we have today, it still holds its weight.

Dr. Andrew Ordon, co-host, The Doctors

Botox should be considered in the same revolutionary category as aspirin due to its more than 400 identified uses. Beyond cosmetic use, applications include relief for sweaty armpits, chronic migraines, neck spasms, back pain and muscle contractures, even treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Flemming Ornskov, CEO, Shire

Neonatal incubators have dramatically improved survival rates and quality of care for premature newborns. The vast majority of babies born weighing less than 3.3 pounds now survive, compared with 40 percent in the 1960s. Thanks to neonatal incubators, we also have the ability to screen premature newborns for additional illnesses.

Reader Responses

Graham Roumieu

Hugo Trux, Upper Arlington, Ohio

We take public sanitation for granted, but it has saved more lives than any surgery or fancy machine, and made it possible to live and work in huge communities.

Steve Harris, St. Louis, Mo.

The Hippocratic oath.

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