Uncertainty, Action, and Medical Errors

The difference between science and medicine

Published on April 15, 2013by Abdul El-Sayed

As a medical student, you’re taught that medicine is “more an art than a science.” It’s an adage that’s usually invoked to explain why, sometimes, errors are made. Throughout my first several years of medical school, before I had had any real experience working in the clinic, I always thought this to be a lame excuse for poor clinical practice.

Sure, the interpersonal aspects of medical care are certainly less scientific. Communicating effectively and comforting another person going through a terrible experience is more about empathy, compassion, and reassurance than it is about science. But science is what differentiates a doctor from anyone else in an ill person’s life. In the end, people trust doctors to understand, interpret, and apply medical science to provide them the best possible care.

If science is medicine’s competitive advantage, than why is medicine more an art than a science?

As a student in a dual MD and PhD training program, I had the illuminating, if not wholly jarring, experience of leaving medical school after my first two years to pursue four years of scientific training as an epidemiologist before returning to medical school to begin my clinical rotations.

Leaving the ivory towers of Oxford and Columbia for the hospital wards on my first rotation in the Bronx was certainly a culture shock. While I had prepared for the changes in environment, workflow, and pace, there was one change for which I was wholly unprepared.

I had spent the last four years working with like-minded colleagues thinking deeply about conceptual issues in epidemiology and public health. Questions about the meaning of inequality, how policy shapes social and behavioral decisions, and methodological approaches to answering difficult causal questions using imperfect data dominated my professional life. And as a scientist, as is the case with almost all scientists, many of the questions that I asked didn’t quite have solid answers. Not yet, at least—and that was okay. Our problems weren’t time-delimited. We could wait until tomorrow.

But as a medical student, working alongside physicians to ask more minute, yet imminent questions about the pathophysiology underlying the symptoms with which my patients were presenting, no answer meant no way forward. And that was not okay—tomorrow might be too late.

Trained as a scientist, I was uncomfortable with the uncertainty of our putative answers. While they could easily be wrong, they were the best we had and were therefore guiding our care—with potentially dire consequences.

That was the case for one patient, Mr. M. He had come in with meningitis, an infection of the protective covering overlying his brain requiring immediate treatment, lest it spread to the vital organ just beneath it. However, because it was unclear what the infecting bug was, and finding out would take several days or more, we treated him with a cocktail of drugs to cover a broad range of potential microbes, including bacteria and fungi. While it was impossible to have known at the time, Mr. M had an allergy to the drug used to treat fungal infections.

His organs broke down one by one. First came the skin rashes—painful eruptions across his back and torso. Next came the jaundice, a result of his failing liver. And finally his kidneys and heart began to crash. While he survived, it was only after a long and painful month in the hospital.

Frustratingly, the whole ordeal could have been avoided—at least in theory. In the end, a fungus didn’t cause his infection. That means the offending drug that caused this catastrophic allergic reaction wasn’t even necessary to begin with.

But theory isn’t practice. Had his infection actually turned out to be fungal, it could have rapidly spread to the brain, causing serious long-term damage, or even death. With precious time wasting, we had to do the best we could with limited information—and that meant treating him for what was potentially a fungal infection, risking the potential side-effects of the treatment.

The source of my discomfort in this newfound setting was the lesson my medical professors, silver-haired veterans of the wards, had been trying to teach me all along: Medicine is not a science because the level of certainty needed to act is not nearly as high. In science, it’s okay not to have a clear answer right now, or even tomorrow. In fact, science keeps going because there is no clear answer. In medicine, even if doctors aren’t confident in it, there must always be a working answer—a person’s life may hang in the balance. So risk is an obligate part of the enterprise.

And with risk, comes errors. Even in the best of circumstances, doctors often have to be comfortable with the fact that the working answer may not be the correct answer, yet they must act on it as if it were. And because, in some cases, the working answer is, in fact, incorrect, errors are made: diagnoses are wrong, inappropriate treatments are given, and people are hurt.

The art of medicine—what I’m learning now—is in knowing how to minimize those errors and respond when they occur.

Edited by Karestan Koenen.