Post for CCIO blog 20/02/17 – The “technodoctor” and putting stories at the heart of healthcare

Here is a post on the CCIO blog which I guess crystallises some of the thoughts I have posted here inspired by Cecil Helman. So this marks a culmination of sorts of engagement with his work.

The “technodoctor” and putting stories at the heart of healthcare

Cecil Helman was a South African-born GP who died in 2009 of motor neurone disease. He was also an anthropologist whose textbook, Culture, Health and Illness, remains a key reference and teaching text for medical anthropology. His approach to medicine, and life, is summed up in the words of one of his obituaries:

For Cecil literature and art were as important as the science of medicine. He was fascinated by people, their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the narratives of their illnesses, their interaction with practitioners, and the role of traditional healers in many different societies. As he said, to be an effective healer, a doctor needs to ‘understand the storyteller as well as the story’.

Cecil_HelmanWhile his academic works have had a major influence on healthcare education and training, his most popular book was 2006’s Suburban Shaman a “mosaic of memories” of storytellers/patients and their stories, informed by his anthropological knowledge and approach. A posthumous sequel, An Amazing Murmur of the Heart, is a sort of sequel, in which Helman discusses the often-dehumanising process of medical education, during which the patient becomes something denatured, disconnected from their narrative. And in this book Helman identifies a new kind of doctor – the “technodoctor”:

Young Dr A, keen and intelligent, is an example of a new breed of doctor – the ones I call ‘techno-doctors’. He is an avid computer fan, as well as a physician. He likes nothing better than to sit in front of his computer screen, hour after hour, peering at it through his horn-rimmed spectacles, tap-tapping away at his keyboard. It’s a magic machine, for it contains within itself its own small, finite, rectangular world, a brightly coloured abstract landscape of signs and symbols. It seems to be a world that is much easier for Dr A to understand , and much easier for him to control, than the real world –  one largely without ambiguity and emotion.

Helman further identifies that this attitude marks a further step along the road of reductionism and dehumanising in medical care:

Like many other doctors of his generation – though fortunately still only a minority – Dr A prefers to see people and their diseases mainly as digital data, which can be stored, analysed, and then, if necessary, transmitted – whether by internet, telephone or radio – from one computer to another. He is one of those helping to create a new type of patient, and a new type of patient’s body – one much less human and tangible than those cared for by his medical predecessors. It is one stage further than reducing the body down to a damaged heart valve, an enlarged spleen or a diseased pair of lungs. For this ‘post-human’ body is one that exists mainly in an abstract, immaterial form. It is a body that has become pure information.

I was reminded by Robert Wachter’s speech at the 2016 CCIO Network Summer School in Leeds, on unintended consequences in health IT. He gave the example of hospitals where doctors are no longer to be found on the wards interacting with patients and other staff, but in a room full of doctors on computers, interacting with the EHR. The most stark illustration he used, however, was a child’s picture of a visit to the doctor, showing the doctor’s back turned to the child and her mother, tap-tapping away at the screen.

“A body that has become pure information” is how Helman describes the end process of the dehumanisation he decries. While I think the “technodoctor” is something of a straw man, Helman is certainly pointing to a genuine risk. “An Amazing Murmur of the Heart” is full of wisdom about the importance of connection, of physical touch, of attending to the story the patient brings, and the meaning of their symptoms for them. It would be a pity if this kind of rich, truly humanistic approach to medicine is somehow placed in opposition to the world of the “technodoctor.”

One way of avoiding the development of this false dichotomy into something tangible lies in Helman’s emphasis on the need to “understand the storyteller as well as the story.” What Helman doesn’t discuss in these passages is how paper-based information systems in healthcare can obscure the story and the storyteller in a welter of disjointed confusion. My own experience of paper notes is all too often wading through pages of confusing, if not illegible, notes, searching for something typewritten or printed. In this circumstance, the story the person is bringing to the encounter is utterly lost.

Initiatives like the EHR Personas allow for the conscientious, judicious use of narratives in planning and executing a major health IT change, one that could radically alter not only how healthcare is delivered but also how the personal story that is at the heart of all this activity is told.

Helman is, from the grave, issuing a warning, however, about what could go wrong. It is the same warning as that Bob Wachter gives with the child’s picture. It is fortunate that “narrative medicine” has become an academic subject in its own right, although perhaps this development indicates that something has been lost. In planning health IT interventions, we must ensure that they allow the story to be told and the storyteller to be heard. Let us focus on ensuring that the human stories that are the real stuff of every single clinical encounter are never lost, and that we turn our faces not to the screen but to those human stories.

“A palimpsest of thousands of painful, shocking memories”

“As a doctor you can never forget. Over the years you become a palimpsest of thousands of painful, shocking memories, old and new, and they remain with you for as long as you live. Just out of sight, but ready to burst out again at any moment”.

This quote from Cecil Helman’s “An Amazing Murmur of the Heart”, a book I was somewhat tepid when I reviewed, has been resonating with me lately. I have also posted here about Helman’s disparagement of   “Technodoctors”:

 

Like may other doctors of his generation – though fortunately still only a minority – Dr A prefers to see people and their diseases mainly as digital data, which can be stored, analysed, and then, if necessary, transmitted – whether by internet, telephone or radio – from one computer to another. He is one of those helping to create a new type of patient, and a new type of patient’s body – one much less human and tangible than those cared for by his medical predecessors. It is one stage further than reducing the body down to a damaged heart valve, an enlarged spleen or a diseased pair of lungs. For this ‘post-human’ body is one that exists mainly in an abstract, immaterial form. It is a body that has become pure information.

I have been re-reading passages of “An Amazing Murmur of the Heart” lately. While the reservations I have  about Helman’s use of medical anthropology being at times, a little glib, and the “technodoctor” something of a straw man, remain, it is a rewarding text. Here he quotes Dr L, one of “six great doctors I have met in my life”, “an old family doctor, battle-weary and cynical after decades in practice. He’s a traditional, no-nonsense type of doctor, stern and impatient, though he has a warm and kindly core.”

cecil-helman
Cecil Helman, from here

Helman has Dr L impart words of genuine wisdom, beyond medical practice:

Every time I see him at work, he reminds that medical practice is about all those tiny, trivial, almost invisible things. They’re the ones that really make a difference. And Dr L is full of advice about them.

“And don’t ever forget about time, ” he says. “Always pay attention to time – and the ways it can affect your patients’ bodies and their minds.” He warns me that time is never linear, and that in emotional terms it can loop and curve back upon itself, at any particular moment. And that some traumatic memories can act like time-bombs, set to go off at some unexpected time in the future.

Helman recalls this in 1994, when the 50th anniversary of D Day sees sudden post traumatic issues, physical and mental, amongst veterans, and again in 1995 with the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.Dr L also impresses on Helman the importance of touch, of human connection.

Of the three books I reviewed for the TLS in 2014, I thought Henry Marsh’s the best as a purely literary work. Heimlich’s memoir was entertainingly grandiose (and, indirectly, led to my discovery that Heimlich’s own son labels him a fraud, a circumstance entirely misses from Heimlich’s book) Helman’s was the book I was most tepid about, and yet it is now the one which has stayed with me most.

amazingmurmur

 

Why are doctors so unhappy?

From the UK junior doctor’s strike to survey after survey , there seems to be growing evidence that a doctor’s lot is not a happy one. Or is it not so much a “doctor’s lot” as a “doctor’s nature?”

I’ve been interested in this question (quite apart from the personal relevance!) ever since working on this review for the TLS of various medical biographies. As I wrote:

In the Western world, at least, the medical profession generally enjoys high status. For sociologists, doctors incarnate various forms of power disparities. Medical science and medical technology have made spectacular progress since the Second World War; procedures such as LASIK laser eye surgery, to give just one example, that once would have seemed magical, are now near-routine.

And yet an air of discontent is evident in much of the discourse of modern medicine. Like many others, the medical profession is under question, if not attack, on a range of fronts. Complementary remedies are increasingly popular, often with practitioners as well as patients, despite the advent of evidence-based medicine and numerous books that have discredited their claims to efficacy. A succession of scandals in Britain and elsewhere has undermined public trust in doctors and nurses. Lewis Terman’s classic study of “gifted” individuals, published in 1954, found that physicians tended to feel inferior relative to those of comparable attainment in other fields, and the Grant Study, George Vaillant’s epic survey of adult development, following the Harvard Class of 1944, identified self-doubt as the feature distinguishing physicians from control subjects.

There was somewhat more I wrote originally, but for reasons of space, had to be cut

 

. Much was based on my reading of Myers and Gabbard’s wonderful The Physician as Patient – a book I reviewed some years ago . As I wrote then, Myers and Gabbard illustrate the power of the case vignette, a somewhat neglected form nowadays, and I also wondered about the  self flagellation possibilities of audit (linked I guess to the Imperative Voice one gets so much of in medical journals)

I didn’t write in my 2008 review of one of the points Myers and Gabbard make – based on psychoanalytic literature – about the much-vaunted grandiosity and pomposity of doctors – the “god complex.” In their reading, this (when it occurs) is a defence mechanism against the ultimate power of death against all our efforts. Personally, there are only a handful of doctors I have come across – and at this point I must have come across hundreds in various contexts – who in any way lived up to the “god complex” stereotype.

Are doctors less happy than other citizens? Surveys and so forth can no doubt be adduced to prove the point (though I must admit after the US Presidential Election having an even greater scepticism about ANY survey or poll being used as “evidence”)  and the lived experience of doctors is increasingly one of a beleaguered profession overwhelmed by competing and constant demands. Is this because of specific issues – funding, resources, de-professionalisation – of the contemporary world?  Is it because of a cultural shift from doctor-knows-best to consumerist healthcare? Or is it something deeper and perhaps near-inherent to the kind of person who is drawn to the practice of medicine? Or something deeper and perhaps near-inherent to the practice of medicine itself?

There is, on one level, more discourse about health and healthcare than ever before. On another, there is often a a euphemistic, evasive quality to much of it. So many terms – from “evidence-based” to “patient centered” – have become godterms that conceal the complexity and diversity of healthcare (both complexity and diversity are themselves “godterms”, increasingly, but I use them very deliberately here) and the contending priorities at play.

This is an area ripe for pompous theorising about Society and Culture and so on, and perhaps I have done my share of this already. One final thought: the WHO definition of health is:

a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Do you, reader, really believe that? Do you really, when you think of what it is to be healthy, think of”complete social well-being”?  What is “complete physical, mental and social well-being” anyway?

The point is not to denigrate “well being” in some way – or not to recognise the value of a positive rather than negative definition of health. The point is, this  grandiose definition has consequences – underlying not just health policy and practice but how we think about what it means to be healthy, and also what doctors (and nurses, and psychologists, and OTs, and physios, and everyone else with apologies for those left out) are trying to achieve. I would argue that the WHO definition is something out of a kind of worldly messianiac pseudo-religion rather than a workable basis for a human-scale endeavour.

 

Unintended consequences and Health IT

Last week along with other members of the Irish CCIO group I attended the UK CCIO Network Summer School. Among many thought provoking presentations and a wonderful sense of collegiality (and the scale of the challenges ahead), one which stood out was actually a video presentation by Dr Robert Wachter, whose review into IT in the NHS (in England) is due in the coming weeks and who is also the author of “The Digital Doctor: Hype, Hope and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age”

digitaldoctor

Amongst many other things, Dr Wachter discussed the unintended consequences of Health IT. He discussed how, pretty much overnight, radiology imaging systems destroyed “radiology rounds” and a certain kind of discussion of cases. He discussed how hospital doctors using eHealth systems sit in computer suites with other doctors, rather than being on the wards. Perhaps most strikingly, he showed a child’s picture of her visit to the doctor. in which the doctor is turned away from the patient and her mother, hunched over a keyboard:

childspic.png

This reminded me a little of Cecil Helman’s vision of the emergence of a “technodoctor”, which I suspected was something of a straw man:

Like may other doctors of his generation – though fortunately still only a minority – Dr A prefers to see people and their diseases mainly as digital data, which can be stored, analysed, and then, if necessary, transmitted – whether by internet, telephone or radio – from one computer to another. He is one of those helping to create a new type of patient, and a new type of patient’s body – one much less human and tangible than those cared for by his medical predecessors. It is one stage further than reducing the body down to a damaged heart valve, an enlarged spleen or a diseased pair of lungs. For this ‘post-human’ body is one that exists mainly in an abstract, immaterial form. It is a body that has become pure information.

I still suspect this is overall a straw man, and Helman admits this “technodoctor” is “still only [part of] a minority” – but perhaps the picture above shows this is less of a straw man than we might be comfortable with.

Is there a way out of the trap of unintended consequences? On my other blog I have posted on Evgeny Morozov’s “To Solve Everything, Click Here.”  a book which, while I had many issue with Morozov’s style and approach (the post ended up being over 2000 words which is another unintended consequence), is extremely thought-provoking. Morozov positions himself against “epochalism” – the belief that because of technology (or other factors) we live in a unique era. He also decries “solutionism”, a more complex phenomenon, of which he writes:

I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning – where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental and narrow-minded solutions – the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences – to problems that are extremely complex, fluid and contentious. These are the kind of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that “solutionists” have defined them; what’s contentious then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.

As will be very clear from my other article, I don’t quite buy everything Morozov is selling (and definitely not the way he sells it!) , but in this passage I believe we are close to something that can help us avoid some of the traps that lead to unintended consequences. Of courses, these are by definition unintended, and so perhaps not that predictable, but by investigating rather than presuming the problems we are trying to solve, and not reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked, perhaps future children’s pictures of their trip to the hospital won’t feature a doctor turning their back on them to commune with the computer.

#irishmed, Telemedicine and “Technodoctors”

This evening (all going well) I will participate in the Twitter #irishmed discussion, which is on telemedicine.

On one level, telemedicine does not apply all that much to me in the clinical area of psychiatry. It seems most appropriate for more data-driven specialties, or ones which have a much greater role for interpreting (and conveying the results of!) lab tests. Having said that, in the full sense of the term telemedicine does not just refer to video consultations but to any remote medical interaction. I spend a lot of time on the phone.

I do have a nagging worry about the loss of the richness of the clinical encounter in telemedicine. I am looking forward to having some interesting discussions on this this evening. I do worry that this is an area in which the technology can drive the process to a degree that may crowd out the clinical need.

The following quotes are ones I don’t necessarily agree with at all, but are worth pondering. The late GP/anthropologist Cecil Helman wrote quite scathingly of the “technodoctor.” In his posthumously published “An Amazing Murmur of the Heart”, he wrote:

 

Young Dr A, keen and intelligent, is an example of a new breed of doctor – the ones I call ‘techno-doctors’. He is an avid computer fan, as well as a physician. He likes nothing better than to sit in front of his computer screen, hour after hour, peering at it through his horn-rimmed spectacles, tap-tapping away at his keyboard. It’s a magic machine, for it contains within itself its own small, finite, rectangular world, a brightly coloured abstract landscape of signs and symbols. It seems to be a world that is much easier for Dr A to understand , and much easier for him to control, than the real world –  one largely without ambiguity and emotion.

Later in the same chapter he writes:

 

Like may other doctors of his generation – though fortunately still only a minority – Dr A prefers to see people and their diseases mainly as digital data, which can be stored, analysed, and then, if necessary, transmitted – whether by internet, telephone or radio – from one computer to another. He is one of those helping to create a new type of patient, and a new type of patient’s body – one much less human and tangible than those cared for by his medical predecessors. It is one stage further than reducing the body down to a damaged heart valve, an enlarged spleen or a diseased pair of lungs. For this ‘post-human’ body is one that exists mainly in an abstract, immaterial form. It is a body that has become pure information.

Now, as I have previously written:

One suspects that Dr A is something of a straw man, and by putting listening to the patient in opposition to other aspects of practice, I fear that Dr Helman may have been stretching things to make a rhetorical point (surely one can make use of technology in practice, even be something of a “techno-doctor”, and nevertheless put the patient’s story at the heart of practice?) Furthermore, in its own way a recourse to anthropology or literature to “explain” a patient’s story can be as distancing, as intellectualizing, as invoking physiology, biochemistry or the genome. At times the anthropological explanations seem pat, all too convenient – even reductionist.

… and re-reading this passage from Helman today, involved as I am with the CCIO , Dr A seems even more of a straw man (“horned rimmed spectacles” indeed!) – I haven’t seen much evidence that the CCIO, which is fair to say includes a fair few “technodoctors” as well as technonurses, technophysios and technoAHPs in general, is devoted to reducing the human to pure information. Indeed, the aim is to put the person at the centre of care.

 

And yet… Helman’s critique is an important one. The essential point he makes is valid and reminds us of a besetting temptation when it comes to introducing technology into care. It is very easy for the technology to drive the process, rather than clinical need. Building robust ways of preventing this is one of the challenges of the eHealth agenda. And at the core, keeping the richness of human experience at the centre of the interaction is key. Telemedicine is a tool which has some fairly strong advantages, especially in bringing specialty expertise to remoter areas. However there would be a considerable loss if it became the dominant mode of clinical interaction.  Again from my review of An Amazing Murmur of the Heart:

 

In increasingly overloaded medical curricula, where an ever-expanding amount of physiological knowledge vies for attention with fields such as health economics and statistics, the fact that medicine is ultimately an enterprise about a single relationship with one other person – the patient – can get lost. Helman discusses the wounded healer archetype, relating it to the shamanic tradition. He is eloquent on the accumulated impact of so many experiences, even at a professional remove, of disease and death: “as a doctor you can never forget. Over the years you become a palimpsest of thousands of painful, shocking memories, old and new, and they remain with you for as long as you live. Just out of sight, but ready to burst out again at any moment”.

Behind the Heimlich manoeuvre – review of books by Henry Heimlich, Cecil Helman, Henry Marsh, TLS 15 October 2014

Probably the highlight of my writing career so far . Not only because of its place of publication (and its featuring on the website) but also because it is the most fully realised piece I have written. It functions well as an honest to goodness book review but has a personal perspective that my work often lacks. Or seems to lack.

I would love to explore the theme of the opening paragraph – about the general dissatisfaction many doctors feel, and how much of this is situation dependent, and how much is inherent to either the work or themselves – further.

BEHIND THE HEIMLICH MANOEUVRE

SÉAMUS SWEENEY
HENRY HEIMLICH
HEIMLICH’S MANEUVERS
MY SEVENTY YEARS OF LIFESAVING INNOVATION
253PP. PROMETHEUS. PAPERBACK, $19.95.
978 1 61614 849 2

CECIL HELMAN
AN AMAZING MURMUR OF THE HEART
FEELING THE PATIENT’S BEAT
135PP. HAMMERSMITH HEALTH. PAPERBACK, £12.99.
978 1 78161 019 0

HENRY MARSH
DO NO HARM
STORIES OF LIFE, DEATH AND BRAIN SURGERY
278PP. WEIDENFELD AND NICOLSON. £16.99.
978 0 297 86987 0

Published: 15 October 2014

In the Western world, at least, the medical profession generally enjoys high status. For sociologists, doctors incarnate various forms of power disparities. Medical science and medical technology have made spectacular progress since the Second World War; procedures such as LASIK laser eye surgery, to give just one example, that once would have seemed magical, are now near-routine.

And yet an air of discontent is evident in much of the discourse of modern medicine. Like many others, the medical profession is under question, if not attack, on a range of fronts. Complementary remedies are increasingly popular, often with practitioners as well as patients, despite the advent of evidence-based medicine and numerous books that have discredited their claims to efficacy. A succession of scandals in Britain and elsewhere has undermined public trust in doctors and nurses. Lewis Terman’s classic study of “gifted” individuals, published in 1954, found that physicians tended to feel inferior relative to those of comparable attainment in other fields, and the Grant Study, George Vaillant’s epic survey of adult development, following the Harvard Class of 1944, identified self-doubt as the feature distinguishing physicians from control subjects.

Henry Heimlich’s autobiography does not provide much evidence of self-doubt or of feelings of inferiority. The Heimlich manoeuvre is one of those medical interventions which have embedded themselves in public consciousness; so much so that I imagined the process was named after some nineteenth-century titan, like an anatomical feature such as the ampulla of Vater or the foramen of Magendie. Heimlich is not merely a historically recent figure, born in 1920, but is still with us. The autobiography opens in 1979 with a demonstration of the manoeuvre on Johnny Carson, on theTonight Show. Like Christian Barnaard, Heimlich was one of the celebrity doctors of the 1960s and 70s; an odd kind of fame, and one which seems to have evaporated. We do not lack for media medics, or doctors-turned-politicians, but a few sports surgeons aside, fame purely on clinical grounds is now unknown.

Heimlich grew up in New Rochelle, New York, overcame the anti-Semitism of the American medical school admission process, and, in January 1945, was drafted as a medical officer to the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, otherwise known as the US Naval Group, China. In Camp Four, at the edge of the Gobi Desert, Heimlich recounts his medical efforts with scant resources and support. He describes improvising a cream to treat trachoma, and is haunted by the death of a soldier whose gunshot-induced chest wound was impossible to drain. This death would inspire his later invention of the flutter valve, his other major medical innovation.

After Camp Four, and his establishment as a surgeon, the book’s focus shifts to medical innovations. Heimlich’s first claimed innovation is the Reversed Gastric Tube Operation, where a tube is created from the stomach to replace a damaged oesophagus. The book is most alive in recounting his innovations and the thought processes that went into them; there are significant gaps in the story between each innovation. While some of the more controversial aspects of his later career – such as an advocacy of malariatherapy for HIV and the removal of the Heimlich manoeuvre from the American Red Cross guidelines for choking – are addressed briefly, the reader would not discover from the book that Heimlich’s own son, Peter, has devoted himself, since 2002, to trying to discredit his father. At the very least, this sturdy, workmanlike account of steady advancement of medical knowledge and uncomplicated life-saving, in the face of opposition from the medical establishment, is not the complete picture.

Cecil Helman died from motor neurone disease in 2009. He was a GP in London, originally from South Africa, and after retiring from clinical practice in 2002 became Professor of Medical Anthropology at Brunel University. In this book, a successor to his Suburban Shaman (2006), Helman continues to advocate listening to the patient and attending to narrative. He repeatedly contrasts ideal practice with various brisk and efficient, and often technologically orientated practitioners. We meet Dr A, “an example of this new breed of doctor – the ones I call ‘techno-doctors’”. Dr A “likes nothing better than to sit in front of a computer screen, hour after hour, peering at it through his horn-rimmed spectacles”. Counterpoised to this is a practice rooted in listening to the patient, and recounting their story.

Each chapter is based on a vignette from clinical practice, related to a concept from the humanities – usually anthropology. For instance, Helman tells us of the pain of a patient which travels across his body, impervious to any intervention and without any discernible physical cause. This pain reminds Helman of the dybbuk, in Jewish folklore the restless soul of a dead person which takes possession of another. He later considers the power of diagnostic labels, the importance of a personal myth and how disease can undermine it, and various other concepts, always related back to his own clinical experience.

Helman’s book is discursive, and readable in the tradition of much medical writing. One suspects that Dr A is something of a straw man, and by putting listening to the patient in opposition to other aspects of practice, I fear that Dr Helman may have been stretching things to make a rhetorical point (surely one can make use of technology in practice, even be something of a “techno-doctor”, and nevertheless put the patient’s story at the heart of practice?) Furthermore, in its own way a recourse to anthropology or literature to “explain” a patient’s story can be as distancing, as intellectualizing, as invoking physiology, biochemistry or the genome. At times the anthropological explanations seem pat, all too convenient – even reductionist.

Nevertheless, there is considerable wisdom here, and one would have no hesitation in recommending this to medical students or doctors in training. In increasingly overloaded medical curricula, where an ever-expanding amount of physiological knowledge vies for attention with fields such as health economics and statistics, the fact that medicine is ultimately an enterprise about a single relationship with one other person – the patient – can get lost. Helman discusses the wounded healer archetype, relating it to the shamanic tradition. He is eloquent on the accumulated impact of so many experiences, even at a professional remove, of disease and death: “as a doctor you can never forget. Over the years you become a palimpsest of thousands of painful, shocking memories, old and new, and they remain with you for as long as you live. Just out of sight, but ready to burst out again at any moment”.

Henry Marsh, recently retired Consultant Neurosurgeon at St George’s Hospital in London, practised a speciality that seems abstruse and mysterious even to other medics. Do No Harm is almost an exemplar of Helman’s palimpsest image. Marsh trod the path from PPE at Oxford to medicine, rather than the Cabinet, and almost accidentally encountered neurosurgery (often not formally taught in medical schools).

Do No Harm is a difficult book to read, not formally or technically – Marsh has a fluid, informal style – but because of the sheer sense of exposure. Puns aside, neurosurgery is at the cutting edge of what it means to be, not only a doctor with limited power to cure or palliate, but to be human. Operations have the potential, even when they seemingly go well, to cause catastrophic effects. As Marsh weighs up the decision to enter the speciality, a neurosurgeon tells him “the operating is the easy part, you know. At my age you realise that the difficulties are all to do with the decision-making”. We accompany Marsh on his post-operative ward rounds, and while at times we read of a recovery and delighted gratitude, more memorable for Marsh and the reader are the times when the worst possible news has to be “broken”.

As a young surgeon, Marsh “lost the simple altruism I had had as a medical student . . . . I became hardened in the way doctors have to become hardened and came to see patients as an entirely separate race from all-important, invulnerable young doctors like myself”. This detachment fades in the later years of practice, and Marsh himself experiences cancer, divorce and the implacable workings of the NHS bureaucracy. This latter force is the subject of some of the most entertaining passages of the book; the world of targets, of endless managerial shell games based on the premiss that mere terminological changes will be enough to transform healthcare, emerges as one divorced from the messy realities of clinical care. The grandiloquent rhetoric about the NHS’s being “the envy of the world” (I’m sorry to inform British readers that the majority of the world doesn’t occupy itself with comparative healthcare enough to feel any such emotion) is also exposed as a continual attempt to plaster over deficiencies in care with words.

With one exception, each chapter is named after a neurological condition (“pituary adenoma”, “neurotmesis” etc) which relates to the clinical vignette around which the chapter is structured. The exception is the chapter entitled “hubris”, and Do No Harm could also profitably be distributed to graduating medical students as a warning against the arrogance so commonly associated with the profession.

We follow Marsh beyond the operating room and the wards. He is part of a National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) technology appraisal, where he wonders “how many of the people sitting round the hollow square [of the meeting room] understood the difficulties and deceptions involved in treating patients who are dying, where the real value of a drug such as this one is hope”. He nevertheless sees these appraisals as important counterbalances to the power of pharmaceutical companies, and is amused that in the US healthcare debates they are seen as “death panels”. Reading a text on the philosophy of mind, he finds himself falling asleep, his conviction that what we are is determined by the clump of neurons that makes up the central nervous system unchanged.

Clearly Henry Heimlich’s account is, at the very least, contested: the use of malariatherapy to treat HIV and of the Heimlich manoeuvre to treat seemingly everything is far from evidence-based practice. In any case, its narrative of medical heroism is one that jars with the honesty and vulnerability displayed by Cecil Helman and, especially, Henry Marsh. The simple idea that doctors themselves are of the same flesh and blood as their patients, a fact often forgotten on both sides of the relationship, is at the core of both Do No Harm and An Amazing Murmur of the Heart. Not all of us are doctors, but all of us – including doctors – can be and will be patients. A wider acceptance of this idea, within the profession and society itself, might aid medicine in healing itself.