The Reading Room: ‘Making Medical Knowledge’

 

Making Medical Knowledge

By Miriam Solomon

Oxford University Press, 2015

 

Reviewed by Dr Jonathan Fuller, University of Toronto

 

We should forgive anyone unfamiliar with recent trends in ‘scientific medicine’ for thinking that within scientific medicine there are now multiple medicines to choose from: evidence-based medicine (EBM), translational medicine, narrative medicine, personalized medicine, and so forth. These approaches are not distinct professions in the same sense as allopathic medicine and naturopathy. But just what are the relationships among modern medicines many ‘medicines’?

In Making Medical Knowledge [1], philosopher Miriam Solomon sets out to assess four of these movements introduced over the last forty years: medical consensus conferences, EBM, translational medicine, and narrative medicine. She calls them ‘methods’ to be concise, but notes that they are distinct epistemological approaches, or approaches to (medical) knowledge. Solomon writes that she selected these four methods because of their “dual and paradoxical epistemic character” (p. 14): there is something obvious about each of them (of course medicine should be ‘based on evidence’), as well as something odd (‘evidence-based medicine’ deemphasizes many kinds of evidence, including expert consensus). Given how much time, effort and money is being spent in the name of these movements, a close inspection is certainly warranted.

Solomon’s approach in her book is to examine these methods using an interdisciplinary lens. She situates her study in the realms of social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, integrated history and philosophy of science, science and technology studies (STS), and critical medical studies. She describes her approach as “Naturalistic, Normative, Applied, Pluralist, Social Epistemology” (p. 11); in other words, she aims to describe and evaluate actual medical knowledge and practice using a diverse set of tools, and with a focus on the social. She writes for a broad academic audience, including the medical community.

In the introductory chapter, Solomon argues that “[t]he science/art dichotomy is no longer a fruitful disciplinary divide” or a meaningful way of describing medicine (p. 11). She instead argues that a ‘methodological pluralism’ describes contemporary medicine and its many methods for negotiating knowledge. Solomon then spends three chapters examining medical consensus conferences and group process, two chapters on EBM, one chapter on translational medicine, and one chapter on narrative medicine. The penultimate chapter advances Solomon’s ‘developing, untidy, methodological pluralism’. According to this view, medicine’s epistemological approaches do not have exclusive domains of application; all of the methods she describes are in active use, their domains overlap, they sometimes come into conflict with one another, and there is no “hierarchy of methods” (p. 229) to rescue us when they clash. The final chapter summarizes Solomon’s main conclusions.

Making Medical Knowledge is an excellent and pioneering study of some of the dominant movements in early Twenty-First Century medicine, which – with the exception of EBM – are relatively unexplored by scholars. It provides a good entry point, offering detailed and insightful reconstructions of each method within its historical context, thus satisfying Solomon’s descriptive aim. The historical detail is rich, especially for medical consensus conferences. Solomon is charitable towards each method, and manages to find substance amidst the rhetoric, even for translational medicine, which is especially difficult to pin down and appears at first glance to offer no more than metaphor. She also provides thoughtful criticisms of each method, thus satisfying her normative aim.

Overall, I think Solomon pitches the discussion well for the broad audience she has in mind. The philosopher, historian, sociologist and anthropologist should all find something of interest in her book. I expect that clinicians, especially within academic medicine, will find it fairly accessible. Satisfying the needs of her diverse audience perhaps prohibits Solomon from going into as much depth as some philosophers, historians or social scientists might like. Such is the cost of interdisciplinarity, but it pays off in the form of a study that benefits from its use of multiple disciplinary lenses.

While I generally agree with Solomon’s analysis of each method, I was not fully convinced that an ‘untidy, methodological pluralism’ is the best way to understand the relationships among the methods. Solomon accepts that the methods are often active at different stages of research, but nonetheless argues that they do not fall on a “tidy linear spectrum” from research to practice (p. 206). Yet as her own analysis reveals, translational medicine (research from ‘bench to market’, or ‘T1’) refers to basic medical science research as well as Phase I and II clinical trials, EBM appraises and aggregates the results of Phase III trials, medical consensus conferences make therapeutic recommendations based on the results of Phase III trials or systematic reviews of trials, and narrative medicine (in its integrated form) interprets guidelines and the research literature in the context of the patient’s story. In other words, translational medicine applies to medical research, consensus conferences apply to knowledge dissemination, and EBM and narrative medicine apply to clinical practice. The main purpose towards which each method is put is unique: translational medicine develops new medical technologies, consensus conferences develop consensus statements or clinical guidelines (often pertaining to those technologies), EBM appraises evidence and applies it in clinical practice, and narrative medicine uses narrative techniques at the bedside. Thus, their domains are less overlapping and arranged more linearly than Solomon’s untidy pluralism might suggest.

Of course, the practice of EBM might sometimes conflict with the practice of narrative medicine (more on this point in a moment). Moreover, the practice of narrative medicine or of EBM might sometimes conflict with the products of consensus conferences: clinical guidelines. Narrative medicine locates individuality in the patient’s narrative, and EBM is often defined as the use of evidence in the care of individual patients [2]. On the other hand, guidelines make recommendations for broad groups of patients, not for individuals.

Solomon presents the example of breast cancer screening for women in their forties to illustrate the various ways that the methods can clash with one another. However, most of the conflict that Solomon describes occurs within each method: among pathophysiologic theories of breast tumour development, among primary studies and systematic reviews with respect to the magnitude of benefit from screening, and among guidelines making recommendations about mammography. While some of the products of EBM (systematic reviews) might appear to conflict with some of the products of consensus conferences (guideline recommendations), the former recommending against mammography and the latter often recommending in favour of mammography, this appearance is illusory. The evidence, on its own, does not have the power to recommend. Conflicts arise among individuals and groups due to their differing interpretations of the evidence and divergent recommendations for which they use the evidence to argue.

Similarly, it might appear that generalized breast cancer screening guidelines conflict with the individualized practice of narrative medicine or EBM. However, even though guidelines make general recommendations on mammography for women in their forties, Solomon notes that the guidelines explicitly state that patients and their physicians should make an individualized decision. There is thus less conflict among the different methods than first meets the eye.

Rather than an untidy methodological pluralism, another way to describe the situation is as follows. Medical research has a dominant aim (‘translation’), and medical practice has a dominant epistemology (EBM). The aim of translation regulates the funding of research, and motivates the use of consensus conferences to disseminate knowledge. Meanwhile, EBM has been embraced by leading medical journals and medical training programs around the world. While medical consensus conferences and clinical guidelines predate EBM, they are now based on the principles of EBM and can be considered EBM tools (the use of evidence-based practice guidelines has been called the ‘using mode’ of EBM [3]). The practice of narrative medicine might sometimes conflict with the practice of EBM. But narrative medicine is a developing movement and approach to clinical medicine, not a dominant one. It does not yet have the political power of EBM. Thus, within research and medical practice, there is more hegemony and less egalitarianism than Solomon’s untidy pluralism perhaps suggests.

Making Medical Knowledge raises interesting questions about the function, theory and practice of medicine’s most influential movements. Modern medicine is a mess of many ‘medicines’, and while it is not the intention of this book to make this mess look tidy, Solomon does succeed in making it intelligible.

 

Acknowledgments

I gratefully acknowledge funding support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

 

Funding

Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

References

  1. Solomon M. Making Medical Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  2. Sackett DL, Rosenberg WMC, Gray JAM, Haynes RB, Richardson WS. Evidence Based Medicine: What It Is and What It Isn’t. British Medical Journal 1996;312:71 – 72.
  3. Straus S, Glasziou P, Richardson WS, Haynes B. Evidence-Based Medicine: How to Practice and Teach It. Edinburgh: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2011.

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