Beyond the White Coat

Get the science right


Get the science right. I have spent years researching and reflecting on what makes the best physicians, the best medicine, the optimal organized medical system, and the best medical ethics and law to support all of it. I have traveled to almost innumerable conferences to discuss these topics with colleagues who have similar goals. Time and time again, I come back to the conclusion that, in the modern era, the second-most important thing to do is to get the science right.

The practice of medicine in my Western world can be traced back to Hippocrates and earlier. The practice of nursing has other milestones. The healing arts have different points of origin in other cultures, such as China. In a modern world of mass communication, these various historical paths are converging on scientific evidence. The science to support medicine has always had flaws, but it has fared better than the other options. Sometimes, the science was so sketchy that the key was to believe in whatever the shaman was providing. But for the past 100 years, science, rather than tradition and hierarchy, has been relied upon to guide policy and action. For the past 50 years, evidence-based medicine has ascended. Have we become better than the snake oil salesmen of the late 19th century?

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

Modern health care is far from perfect. The pandemic has been a major stressor to the health care system. The pandemic has revealed flaws and weaknesses, including inequity in access to care, health illiteracy, and a shaky moral compass balancing individual liberty and social good. Overall, despite multiple mistakes dealing with a novel threat, I think the institutions promoting science have performed well during the pandemic, especially when compared with the moral and governmental institutions encouraging ethical behavior and making policies to promote justice.

My highest praise would be for the professionalism of health care workers. Nurses and physicians have staffed the hospitals and clinics caring for people when the hallways were overflowing for days without end. Without the commitment, the teamwork, and the courage to provide that care, the death toll would have been much higher and the suffering unimaginable. My observation is that these people were not motivated by an abstract primum non nocere, first do no harm. It was the commitment to love one’s neighbor and care for the sick. This dedication is the first most important thing in professionalism.

Part of what fuels that commitment is a belief that what they are doing makes a difference. The belief is stronger when there is measurable, scientific evidence that a difference is being made. The scientific decisions have not been perfect, but at this point the evidence is clear that the shutdown flattened the curve. Vaccines saved lives and will continue to do so. Masks saved lives. Nursing care, particularly intensive care, reduced the case fatality rate and assuaged suffering and grief.

What lessons about training new providers can be gleaned from the past 2 years? Those who teach professionalism for physicians, nurses, and other health care workers should strengthen the common value systems that undergird the commitment people have to the patients and the professions. In the face of postmodern nihilism and relativism, virtues need to be clarified and reinforced. In the face of political polarization which seeks to make a political affiliation the locus of loyalty and commitment, emphasize the fellowship of the health care professions.

To me as a scientist, a key lesson is that we need to be better at getting the science right. Two years ago I was wiping some groceries with alcohol and quarantining cans in shopping bags in the corner of the kitchen for 24 hours before shelving them. I still push elevator buttons with my knuckles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to revamp their policy making procedures.

Institutions must work to reestablish the public trust in science. That is a challenge because while many amazing scientific advances have occurred (i.e., my MRI last week showed far more going on than my orthopedist and physical therapist detected based on clinical exam). Imaging such as MR and ultrasound have been major advances in diagnostic medicine, but there are also repeated examples demonstrating where medicine has been wrong. In the past 6 months I have read new guidelines for ear tubes, for neonatal jaundice, for newborn sepsis, and for newborn hypoglycemia. All indicate to me that my training 30 years ago was on target and the interval “improvements” in practice have been worthless Brownian motion based on false scientific discoveries. My recommendation would be that pediatrics do one-third as much research but do that research three times better and get it right.

Dr. Powell is a retired pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at

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