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Medicine, it is often said, is as much an art as a science. Certainly there was a time, not so long ago, when science was conspicuous by its absence from the healing art. Potions and procedures whose value was at best dubious and at worst positively dangerous were in common usage. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times. Vast improvements in our knowledge of how the body works, in health and in sickness, have laid the foundations for the dramatic medical advances that have occurred in the past hundred or so years. The scope and pace of medical research are so vast and furious that no person can take it all in. Even specialists working in a single field of medicine can find it hard to keep up to date.
With so much knowledge around it is easy to think that doctors must surely by now have most of the answers. Yet we all know how far this is from the truth. The evidence is all around us that there are many diseases for which we have no treatments, or only poor ones. Even in conditions for which there are good treatments available we see the need to reduce the chance of side effects happening and to use these treatments in even better ways. We will never get to the stage when we know all there is to know.
It's a surprise to most people to learn that much of medical practice as it now stands is not based on solid science. A lot of what doctors do is based on the ways that things have always been done. Often such treatments have their roots in days when it was simply not possible to be very ‘scientific’ about testing treatments and one simply got on with the job of tackling a particular problem in a particular way. As everybody else did the same thing, this became accepted treatment. Particularly in the past decade health professionals have realised the need to question our present knowledge and try to improve what we do for their patients. Revisiting these treatments with the aim of giving them a more scientific basis is another important reason why medical research will always have a lot of work to get through.
The popular view of medical research is that it is something that only goes on in hospitals or in laboratories by people in white coats. That is partly the truth but by no means all of it. What we need to know most is how well do our treatments work in the real world? These treatments could be drugs, surgical techniques, appliances, therapies, medical gadgets or anything else used in a person’s care. This is where we all come in. To be sure how well treatments work, how safe they are and how they can be improved we need to do a lot more studies involving people who already have the sort of conditions that we are trying to treat more effectively.