Why Medicine Is Slow to Change

Prof Pollack discusses Dr Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) was a Hungarian physician who suggested that doctors should start washing their hands in between examining corpses and delivering babies. At the time, there was a high mortality rate in obstetrical clinics and Dr Semmelweis suggested that if doctors started washing their hands before delivering babies, the mortality rate would be reduced. Dr Semmelweis did this and found, unsurprisingly to us, that the mortality rate for his patients was dramatically reduced. 

Despite this, Semmelweis’s doctor colleagues did not accept that washing hands was important, and they did not change their way of doing things. Understandably, Dr Semmelweis became very frustrated by his fellow doctor’s unwillingness to accept something that was just so obvious - especially because he had demonstrated with evidence that washing hands had a direct and dramatic impact on the survival of his own patients. The frustration associated with this literally sent Semmelweis mad and he died in a mental institution. 

It seems incredible to us now that doctors were so unwilling to change and accept something so obvious. But the reality is that this exact same thinking process is still with us today. Medicine and science are just as reluctant to consider new evidence as they were back then. In fact, change is actually even more difficult to effect today than it was when Semmelweis was alive. Today, not only does basic human psychology work against the prospect for change, but we now have huge commercial interests that actively silence anyone who comes up with a new idea, or anything that challenges their revenue. Added to this, most of the main media organisations are, at the highest level, connected with the commercial interests.