What medical innovation is:
1. Available worldwide
2. More likely to yield a diagnosis than an X-ray
3. Cheaper than the cheapest stethoscope
4. Requires less training to operate than a tendon hammer?
Answer: A tongue depressor
Why? Because when deployed within the context of a medical consultation- when the practitioner gives the patient their undivided attention, the tongue depressor forges a relationship that may lead the patient to express their deepest concerns. In what other social context can you shove a piece of wood into someones open mouth and get them to say ahhh? A few years ago I consulted a fifty year old mother of five, working as a supermarket check out assistant complaining of a sore throat. We talked about how awful she felt and how she was struggling to cope with her job, how she gets frequent bouts of tonsillitis and how she was afraid her boss would sack her. She had a mildly red throat and I thought I could feel a couple of tender lymphnodes in her neck but her temperature was normal and I remember thinking I’d seen worse earlier that day. Then as I turned around to write a prescription she burst into tears and said-
‘There’s something else I need to tell you doctor. I’m now working as a prostitute because for the first time in ten years I haven’t been able to afford my kids school books.’
That was not what I expected to hear, or anything they told me at medical school could result from examining a throat. That consultation took a very different direction, she was screened for other infections and was fortunately negative. We then talked about her dilemma and she decided there may be better ways to furnish her kids with what they needed for school.
There is very little evidence that the appearance of the throat aids the diagnosis in most cases- even a viral sore throat can mimic a bacterial infection. In any case in developed economies penicillin does not help the patients recover much quicker. However, anyone with a sore throat who consults a doctor expects to be examined. Besides why do people seek medical advice about pharyngitis? It is common knowledge that in most cases a couple of paracetamol, fluids and rest is the only effective treatment. In many cases people are expressing concern about some other aspect of their life when they present with minor self limiting illness. What people say, if you are receptive is
‘I’m unhappy, I’m worried, I’m bored, I’m feeling guilty, I’m tired or I’m not coping and this discomfort is the last straw.’
That’s one of the myriad of reasons that general practice is the most challenging medical specialty, nothing is necessarily what it seems at first glance.
Innovations don’t need to be high tech or expensive- a tongue depressor costs 13 cents. That doesn’t mean that in the right hands such simple equipment is not extraordinarily powerful. There are tools we seldom do without- a stethoscope is vital and not only because of what we can hear when we put it to the chest.