In September, as lawmakers in California debated a proposed new law to tighten vaccination requirements for schoolchildren, a protestor threw a menstrual cup with red liquid across the Senate chamber. Although that person’s goal was to disrupt a vote on the bill, it was passed and signed into law. The anti-vaccine movement is one sign of a larger issue facing healthcare — growing public mistrust of science. This wave of doubt should concern all who work in healthcare.
Science is foundational to healthcare.
Yes, compassion in healthcare is essential. Yes, health insurance is an important mechanism to provide access. And yes, the cost of care will continue to challenge state and federal budgets. But what is the future of healthcare, if we turn away from science?
September also marks the annual Rally for Medical Research, an event where scientists from across the country gather in Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to increase funding for the National Institutes for Health (NIH). Each year, the NIH invests nearly $40 billion in the pursuit of basic, translational, and applied science through grants to more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and research centers. Lives are saved, improved, and extended with the scientific knowledge developed by this financial support.
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When we show up to a doctor’s office or hospital as patients, we expect there to be a treatment for whatever ails us. It’s easy to forget that today’s commonplace treatments were developed by the application of science to the human condition. So when we begin accusing pediatricians of harming children with vaccines, or denying that climate change is real, or mocking the science that tells us that too many chemicals are entering our water and food sources — we are harming ourselves. The emotional satisfaction we get from snarkiness is short-lived, but its implications for science and medicine are much longer. Will politicians continue to support scientific investment, if a growing segment of our population doubts its validity?
No one is suggesting that we should have blind faith in science and medicine. There is a need for healthy skepticism in all things. Research is fundamentally a way of challenging conventional wisdom, but is based on a process that physicist Richard Feynman once described as “a way of not fooling ourselves.” The scientific process — based on repeatability by different teams with a peer-review process — is the way to differentiate between what we believe to be true and what is demonstrably true.
Today’s polarization is driven by many factors — economic, political, and belief systems. In healthcare, clashes over health insurance, access to care, and its cost, pale in importance to a more fundamental disturbing trend: Do we still believe in science? The treatments that will cure cancer, prevent Alzheimer’s, and reverse heart disease will depend on our answer.