In 1910, taking a person’s blood pressure was considered revolutionary, a high-tech practice that was of uncertain benefit.
Dr. Harvey Cushing of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore had observed a blood pressure device while traveling in Europe, developed by Dr. Sciopione Riva-Rocci. Cushing brought this new technology back with him to the U.S. and promptly promoted its use, convinced that this insight into gauging the forcefulness of blood pressure would yield useful clinical insights.
But, in 1910, practicing physicians rejected this new technology, preferring to use their well-established and widely practiced technique of pulse palpation (feeling the pulse), skeptical that the new tool added value. Medical practice of the day was rich with descriptions of the strength and character of the pulse: pulsus parvus et tardus (the slow rising pulse of aortic valve stenosis), the dicrotic notch of aortic valve closure transmitted to the pulse, the “water-hammer” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency.
Over the next 20 years, however, the medical community finally gave way to the new technique, although only physicians were allowed to use blood pressure devices, as nurses were regarded as incapable of mastering the skills required to perform the procedure properly.
Stethoscopes were also gaining in popularity in the early 20th century, but were also the exclusive province of physicians trained in their use. Nurses were not allowed to use stethoscopes until the 1960s. Even then, nurses were not allowed to call them “stethoscopes,” but “nurse-o-scopes” or “assistoscopes,” and the nurses’ version of the device was manufactured to look different to avoid confusion with the “real” doctor’s tool.
And just half a century ago, if you wanted to look at a medical textbook, you would have to go to the library and ask for special permission. The librarian would lower her glasses and look you up and down to determine whether or not you were some kind of pervert. Only then might you be granted permission to peer into the pictures of organs and naked bodies.
Such has been the spirit of medicine for centuries: Medicine and its practices are meant to be secret, the insider knowledge of a privileged few.
Fast forward to 2008: The Information Age has overturned the rules of privileged information. Now you have access to the same information as I do, the same information available to practicing physicians. The playing field has been levelled.
Curiously, while information access has advanced at an instantaneous digital pace, attitudes in medicine continue to evolve at the traditional analog crawl. Many of my colleagues continue to be dismayed at the new public access to health information, belittle patients for excessive curiosity about their health, lament the erosion of their healthcare-directing authority. And while new concepts race ahead as we race towards a wiki-like collective growth in healthcare knowledge, physicians are still mired by their reluctance to abdicate their once-lofty positions as chief holders of secrets.
I believe that this is part of the reason why family doctors and cardiologists have been slow to adopt technologies like heart scans and self-empowering programs like Track Your Plaque: processes that take heart disease prevention away from the hands of physicians and place more control into the hands of the people.
Imagine the horror felt by physicians in 1935 of a young upstart nurse boldly trying to use a stethoscope to take a patient’s blood pressure. You can imagine the internal horror now being felt as you and I dare to take control over heart disease and deny them the chance to put in four stents, three bypass grafts, then direct our future health habits.
But technology has a way of marching on. It will encounter resistance, bumps, and blind-alleys, but it will go on.
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