When I tell people that I’m interested in evolutionary medicine, I sometimes get the response “Evolutionary medicine? Or the evolution of medicine?”.
I’ll admit, I’m actually interested in both, but my interest in Evolutionary Medicine is much stronger than my interest in the history and progression of medicine, though this subject can be rather fascinating. I’ve listened to a course on the history of medicine, attended some extra lectures, and occasionally pick up a book to indulge this interest, but as a third (soon to be fourth, in 2 weeks!) year medical student, I generally have a hard enough time trying to make sense of our modern medical practices without spending too much time thinking about medical history.
Sometimes, however, the evolution of medicine plays out right in front of your eyes.
Today I took the end-of-clerkship exam for my obstetrics and gynecology rotation. I actually enjoyed this clerkship a lot more than I had initially anticipated (a good thing, as I am increasingly thinking that I will pursue a residency in Family Medicine, which includes obstetrics). I found myself a lot more enthusiastic to go to the OR to scrub in than I was during my surgical clerkship many months ago (it’s amazing what a year of clinical medical education will do to you).
This clerkship was split into a number of portions: labor and delivery (L&D), night float, women’s health clinic, maternal-fetal medicine (MFM), reproductive endocrinology and infertility (REI), gynecology, and gynecologic oncology… Quite the smorgasbord! On night float and L&D I would frequently end up in the OR to scrub in on a cesarean delivery, on gyn and gyn onc I was in the OR daily for a range of procedures from small biopsies to extensive tumor staging cases.
Major advancements in surgery include the discovery and utilization of anesthesia (Imagine being awake and able to feel everything in surgery! Better not, actually…), and the acceptance of germ theory (for which we should thank John Lister (1827-1912), namesake of Listerine!). Many other discoveries, techniques, and inventions have changed the practice of surgery, but these two are biggies. The third, looming, problem that needs to be addressed is the perturbation of cytokines during and after surgery, but that is a story for another day!
An interesting progression of surgery is the way in which surgeons gain access to the abdomen and pelvis. Traditionally, as one might imagine, the easiest way to visualize and manipulate the internal organs was to do an open procedure, literally cutting a person open to directly access the area to be operated. In the 1980s, gynecologists started to train in a new technique- laparoscopic or “minimally invasive” surgery- in which a small camera is inserted into the abdomen (which has been inflated with an inert gas to create space*) so that surgeons can visualize the internal structures without opening the belly. Instruments can be introduced into the abdomen through small incisions, and organs and instruments can be manipulated inside the body** and visualized on a screen.
Initially this technique was used for only very small procedures (such as a tubal ligation, “having your tubes tied”), but as surgeons became more proficient, the complexity of the cases that could be performed in this manner increased. The utility of this technique was recognized, and in the 1990s, general surgeons started to train in laparoscopic techniques. Now, many surgeries, both gynecologic and general, are performed laparoscopically (somewhere along the way, urologists started using this technique as well).
To be a good laparoscopic surgeon takes a lot of time and training. Cut yourself a 31 or 42 cm stick and imagine trying to do small and precise tasks with the end, which you can only visualize on a screen. Now imagine you have to dissect out delicate pieces of anatomy, correctly identify them, preserve or remove tissue accordingly. As a student on the gynecology service, there was really no reason to scrub into “lap” cases (though they were generally good cases to observe, since the screens make the procedure easy to follow), but on surgery I would sometimes scrub in and occasionally be allowed to steer the camera or “bag” a specimen for removal (really, the resident would drop the sample into the endocatch bag, but they would generally act like it was a great triumph for the student!). It all looks fairly easy until you actually have your hands on the instruments and have to find your way around the belly (or if you’re the med student with the camera, make sure the surgeon is seeing what she wants to see!).
Once you are proficient with laparoscopic techniques, there is a lot you can do. One of the fellows on the Trauma service was a specialist with laparoscopic techniques, and he could “run the bowel” (visualize it from end to end) more rapidly laparoscopically than many surgeons could do open. Getting proficient, however, takes a lot of time, especially if one is to master skills such as laparoscopic suturing.
Many gynecological and general procedures are now done using laparoscopic techniques. If you have your gallbladder or appendix removed, it’s likely you will have a “lap-chole” or a “lap-appy”, and the offending part will be removed with only a few small incisions visible.
In the last 10 years (I think), there was been “the next step” in laparoscopic surgery… the invention and utilization of a laparoscopic robot. I should be clear that surgery is still under the control of a surgeon, and no one has “robot surgery”, but the “latest and greatest” (though is it really?) advancement in surgery is “robot assisted laparoscopic surgery”.
In robot cases, the abdomen is accessed similar to a traditional laparoscopic case, except the various instruments are subsequently attached to a robot, instead of being wielded by surgeons (though an assistant was needed at the patients side in the cases I saw to swap out instruments and to suction). Using “the robot” allows surgeons a lot more precision and accuracy, and according to one of the surgeons I observed, you become proficient much more quickly on the robot than you do with traditional laparoscopic techniques.
Is it progress?
On my week of gynecology, I witnessed the same surgery (supracervical hysterectomy) done open, laparoscopically, and with a robot-assist. Some cases, due to the underlying pathology or anatomy, must be done open. If the uterus is too adherent to other structures or if there might be malignancy that could spread if not removed in one piece, open surgery is probably the best option. All things being equal, recovery from an open procedure is much longer than for the other options.
When it comes to laparoscopic surgery, robotic surgeries can potentially accomplish much finer tasks than general laparoscopy with significantly less blood loss (the robotic hysterectomy that I observed had an estimated blood loss of 20cc- they probably take more at your annual physical). The laparoscopic case I saw also had minimal blood loss and was accomplished very quickly- the surgeon has decades of practice under his belt.
So- is this the evolution of medicine? Will robots fill every OR, and will the best surgeons be those who spent many hours as a child (or as an adult, as often is the case) playing video games? (I had to have a quick google, which resulted in this.).
Who am I to say? I’m just a MS3.97 (yes I calculated), with no great knowledge of surgery. All I can say is that the progression of medicine is amazing. We (generalists, specialists, surgeons, and other health care practitioners) have amazing technology at our fingertips. We have access to impressive diagnostics, powerful drugs, and amazing technology that allow us to diagnose, treat, and definitively fix disease. But we must be judicious. Diagnostics and treatments (pharmacologic and surgical) have consequences- some big and some small.
Sometimes the question shouldn’t be “what type of surgery”, or “which drug”, but rather “is surgery necessary?” or “how will treatment help” (I don’t think the cases I described above were unnecessary, but Obstetricians/gynecologists, because of the horrible state of medical-legal affairs, often seem to err on the side of doing too much and/or acting very quickly). We can do amazing things with medicine. Contrary to how this may sound, I’m not acquiring medical knowledge with no intent of using it. Rather, I think that those with medical knowledge have a responsibility to help patients decide what is the best option for them- physically and personally. At least that’s the kind of doctor I want to be…
But hey- we have some pretty cool tools out there to help us when we need them!
*It’s amazing how laparoscopy can pervert your perception of anatomy. When the abdomen is pumped full of gas it looks like organs are flopping around with lots of space, when in reality everything is rather tightly packed during day-to-day living.
** I write abdomen or “belly”, but I generally mean abdomen and/or pelvis.