If Doctors Thought Like Anti-Vaxxers

An anti-vaxxer recently told me that she’d never change her mind, even if presented with sound scientific evidence.

This will come as a surprise to exactly no one who has an IQ greater than that of a cabbage, but medical school was grueling.

The amount of knowledge that we were expected to stuff into our brains was mind-boggling, and it has only grown in size since then. As I sat in lecture after lecture, listening to a professor drone on and on about the Krebs cycle or the microscopic structure of each layer of the intestinal wall, I wondered how I could possibly remember it all. And as I dissected my cadaver in gross anatomy, I felt suffocated by the sheer volume of nerves, arteries, veins, and every detailed part of each organ.

Despite the stress, somehow I managed to get through it. My colleagues and I sat and listened diligently; we studied, we reviewed, and we learned. We came with open minds to understand each system of the body and how they worked individually and with each other. We discovered how those systems can break down, leading to every pathology imaginable.

But imagine how different the education would have been if I had already decided that I knew it all, because I had “researched” it all before.

Several recent discussions on Twitter with antivaccine advocates—none of whom were doctors or nurses—made me wonder. All of these folks claimed they were well-researched, and they held very strong opinions on vaccines, genetically-modified foods, and several other scientific subjects.

They insisted vaccines cause autism and various other diseases (they don’t), and no matter how much evidence I presented to the contrary, their opinions were set rigidly in stone. One even explicitly told me that no matter how much evidence I showed her to the contrary, she would never change her mind on the supposed evils of vaccines.

That got me thinking: What if I had shared that closed-mindedness in medical school? What kind of doctor would I have become if I had refused to listen to my professors because what they taught me didn’t agree with my preconceived notions of how medicine worked?

First, my infectious disease professor would lose my confidence entirely. I would refuse to believe that infectious diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses, because I once saw a YouTube video claiming that we can’t see them, so they can’t hurt us. Someone could try to claim that we can see bacteria under a microscope, but I would counterclaim that it could be something else like a contaminant. Besides, my mother said that colds are caused by going outside with wet hair, not some silly virus.

In my pharmacology course, I would have had a hard time believing the professor as he described the various antibiotics that have saved millions of lives, curing a range of diseases from pneumonia to urinary infections to cancer. But I wouldn’t believe him because my naturopath told me to avoid those poisons, because infections can be treated just as well with cranberry juice and herbs.

While learning about pediatrics, I’d brush off the whole module on vaccines, which have eradicated smallpox, nearly wiped out polio and measles, and have prevented millions of deaths and even more hospitalizations. But I read in a Facebook group that vaccines are just a eugenics project engineered the government in an attempt to depopulate the planet. Plus my homeopath told me they cause autism, autoimmune diseases, asthma, peanut allergies, shaken baby syndrome, and SIDS.

I would probably skip most of the OB/GYN course. Despite the fact that infant mortality is far better now than ever before due to advances in prenatal and postnatal care, my sister’s doula told me that natural home births are better for the wellbeing of the child, and all those nasty drugs could be avoided. I would have to ignore the fact that my daughter would have died during childbirth had we attempted a home birth due to a prolapsed umbilical cord.

I could skip oncology altogether, though cancer care has advanced dramatically over the past 50 years due to better chemotherapy and more highly-targeted surgery and radiotherapy. I would have to deny that chemotherapy can cure many types of blood cancers because my acupuncturist told me that mainstream medicine is suppressing the real cure for cancer. He claims cancer is actually a fungus and can be cured by alkalizing the blood with baking soda. He told me oncology is just a big moneymaking scheme for doctors and hospitals that have no interest in curing anything, despite exhaustive ongoing research efforts and thousands of scientists and doctors dedicating their entire lives to finding a cure.

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I could probably also skip my family medicine rotation, because my chiropractor claims he is qualified to act as a primary physician, curing everything from diabetes to ear infections and asthma with an adjustment or two. Sure, he didn’t study medicine like a real doctor, sure there is no evidence that chiropractic “medicine” is effective for anything other than low back pain, and sure the subluxations he keeps talking about don’t actually exist so they can’t be blocking my nerves’ energy flow, which also doesn’t exist. But he sounds confident.

My surgery rotation would have been much more difficult to discount. I would have to admit that removing an infected gall bladder is an instant cure, but I would have felt obligated to tell the surgeon that the procedure he just performed was unnecessary, because my herbalist told me that the patient could have flushed the gallstones out using herbs and olive oil.

I could go on, but the point should be fairly evident.

The amount of pseudoscience, false beliefs, and unwarranted fears surrounding modern medicine is staggering, and as a physician I am growing increasingly disheartened by the number of people who choose to eschew it in favor of untested or unscientific practices.

Millions of hours of research have produced this system of health that has caused life expectancy and quality of life to be higher today than ever before. There have been many bumps in the road, and make no mistake, there will be more. The recent horrors in France, when a clinical drug trial killed one and hospitalized others, are a testament to that.

But abandoning the best and most advanced system of medicine ever created because of a few notable hiccups would be like abandoning air travel entirely because of a plane crash. When tragedies like that occur we investigate, learn what went wrong, and improve the system so that it never happens again.