It’s not a symptom, it’s a feature

Medical science has developed amazing tools to examine the human body over the years. Petri dishes, incubators, and various types of cultures identify infections. Ultrasound, X-rays, CT, MRI, FMRI and PET use different kind of technologies to give doctors a better view and understanding of our inner working. In extreme cases, ever advancing surgery techniques provide hands on approach.

Most of us will only get to use these when seriously ill or seriously rich and paranoid. Despite all those mind-boggling technological innovations, when Joe sick-pack goes to the doctor he gets examined with a stethoscope, wooden stick, thermometer, analog sphygmomanometer and a whole lot of MD fingers. Verbal inquiring is another characteristic instrument doctors wield at medical proficient Joe sixth-pack, who is prone to lies of shame. It seems development of widespread diagnostic equipment available at doctors’ disposal has reached a stall a few decades ago. Funds keep flowing into research for ever more powerful drugs and fancier high-end diagnostic machines, promoting production of solve-all power tools or solutions for high profile diseases affecting only a fraction of the population. When all you have is a broad-spectrum antibiotic and ancient diagnostic equipment, everything looks like a superbug. Ironically, overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotic is a catalyst of superbug evolution. Other risks of antibiotics include side effects and an allergic reaction, yet antibiotic medicine is still one of the most powerful tools available at doctors’ disposal.

Absence of efficient analysis methods leads not only to over reliance on solve-all power tools, but also avoidance of the real issue at hand by both doctors and patients. Falling back to symptom treatment rather than going head to head with the real issue is the simpler choice, especially when facing rudimentary findings that can only be supplemented with extensive and cost-inefficient tests. Such a misinformed treatment could subject the patient to unnecessary side effects and hide the underlying illness by removing its symptoms, allowing it to stride on and mature, reducing chances of early discovery and treatment that can be sometimes save a life. It can also subject the patient to unnecessary dangerous operations where a simpler solution might exist.

It’s easy to blame doctors and the pharmaceutical industry for pushing drugs on unsuspecting patients, but both are just doing their jobs while trying to keep up with overwhelming crowds of sick, aching and impatient masses. Patients get no more than a few minutes each and are handled with archaic diagnostic equipment, forcing workarounds or guess work and hand-offs to busy specialists. It would seem our healers are doing the best they can under the circumstances, developing and distributing powerful drugs that work for most cases while favoring side effects over precise treatment in the name of cost efficiency and large scale medicine.

An analogy can be drawn to the computing world and specifically to debugging. Bug squashing consists of the same steps as illness treatment – discover symptoms, analyze, hypothesize, apply fix, rinse and repeat until symptoms disappear. Quality relevant analytic tools and deep understanding of the code make analysis easier and improve chances of spotting and fixing the bug faster; removing the need for quirky workarounds. Powerful and accessible tools like symbols, windbg, sysinternals, virtual machines, logs facilities, scriptable environments and automated test scenarios shed light over system internals and allow extensive yet concise overview of the issue, quick theory debunking, solutions for common issues, and easy verification of solutions. Imagine how powerful a vital signs logging facility would be at detecting anomalies, how much simpler analysis would be with body part isolation by virtualization, how less stressful it would be if every piece of the human body was marked with an appropriate name regardless of its current location, how enlightening it would be to view processes in a streamlined graph, and how relaxing it would be for the patient to know all is well on the spot instead of waiting for the test results.

Sci-fi inspired whole body scanner with shiny lasers able to detect the issue in a few seconds, fix it with a different color of laser and then make coffee will probably not be invented for a few more centuries, but there’s no need to get carried away. When debugging a system, human or digital, every little diagnostic tool should help. Cheap discrete heart monitor for rhythm irregularities detection, microbiological culture device with the ability to identify common infections with no need for a microscope, common antibodies detector, or a portable x-ray device would all reduce the burden and encourage better solutions overall.

Hopefully, the recent rise in biotechnological studies over the last few years will show its affect soon and shift focus from drugs to widespread diagnostics and narrow treatments.

One thought on “It’s not a symptom, it’s a feature

  1. I had some similar thoughts about diagnostics (after such non-intrusive, cheap diagnostic tools would have been helpful to friends).
    Probably someone already said that these tools can be used to ‘hack’ people in the cracking sense.
    Unfortunately i’m not aware of biotechnological studies, maybe i should search a bit on pubmed.

    hmmm, somehow i don’t feel this is a complete comment, but i’ll post it anyways.

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