How far have we come, how far could we go?

Douglas Anderson discusses advances in technology and healthcare in his latest blog.

How far have we come, how far could we go?

Growing up in the Anderson family, every day was Halloween. My dad was a pathologist who would happily tell his tales from the mortuary over the family dinner table. As kids playing in the garden, the whiff of formaldehyde would lead us to the specimen bottles my dad had left in the garage, whilst in transit from a conference back to the laboratory. Not so much the Anderson family, as the Addams family.    

But, of course, there was a serious side to my dad’s research, in trying to improve our understanding of the human body. Looking back at life in the 1980's, and particularly the technology that my dad used in his work, it’s like night and day.

Life before ultrasound

I recently had a powerful reminder of just how far we have come when reading my dad’s diaries from the 1980's. 1983 was a difficult year when my dad’s dad (another doctor, then in his late 70's) was struggling with abdominal pain. After a variety of inconclusive tests, the medics (in Dundee, Scotland) had no alternative but to open-up my grandpa’s gut and have a look. That quickly revealed several, inoperable cancerous tumours. Later, it transpired that these were secondary to the original tumour in his lung, almost certainly caused by his tobacco addiction.  

Yes, as a wee aside, not that long ago it was fashionable for doctors to smoke. For a salutary reminder, please take a look at the British Doctors Study, research led by late Professor Sir Richard Doll. He was one of my dad’s heroes. I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Richard in later life when he became an honorary actuary.   

Doubling the pace of improvement

Today, of course, an ultrasound scan is a tool used in everyday healthcare. It would have revealed the source of my grandpa’s pain without the need for invasive surgery. New technology like scanners are one of the reasons why survival rates for cancer have dramatically improved over the last generation. The Cancer Research UK charity notes that the UK’s 10 year survival rates (an average across all cancers) improved from 25% in 1970 to 50% by 2010. It has set itself the target of reaching 75% by the early 2030's, effectively doubling the pace of improvement.

Too good to be true?  

Perhaps not. We have still to see the benefits of many innovations in treatment feed through into the survival statistics.  Moreover, advances in early detection techniques materially improve the prognosis. Cancers caught in stage one are far more treatable than those discovered later. If you need a little cheering up this Halloween, try reading this article on an Anglo-American research collaboration focussing on improving early detection rates.  

Maybe I’m just an inveterate optimist. But I find it useful to look back, from time to time, to help rein in the “availability bias” that so often distorts our sense of orientation. 

What do you think?

Please post your questions in our Friends of Club Vita discussion group on LinkedIn.

Lang may yer lums reek.


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