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Medical Science is Getting Better

the perfect stock photo for this post

People sure like to complain about modern medicine.

No one is denying that doctors can be impersonal, make dire mistakes, and pharmaceutical companies can be especially shady (covering up statistics and such).

Unfortunately, these issues can easily distract us from how much better things have become over the last hundred years.

In this post, we’ll take a look at some phenomenal statistics showing just how much things have improved over the last 100 years – lowering all causes of death by nearly half, and almost doubling our life expectancy.

Finally, we’ll look at a short documentary video outlining 200 years of medical history, which tracks the progress of three of the biggest medical topics of our age – surgery, cancer, and AIDS.

Statistics – Top 10 Causes of Death

Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine began celebrating their 200th year of publication. With that celebration comes a sort of celebration of medicine itself. Medical journals inform Doctors all over the world about current research, helping to spread knowledge quickly. NEJM is perhaps the oldest continuously published medical research journal, and since they began publishing in 1812, medicine has changed drastically. And these changes, for the most part, have been positive.

With all our concerns over the medical system these days, I think it’s about time someone showed us the glass half full.

For instance, check out this article published June 21st, 2012: ‘The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine’ 1. It has an interactive chart describing how the top 10 causes of death have changed from 1900 to 2010 in the United States.

click the link to the original article above and check out this interactive graph

Check it out, and play around with the chart. It’s really interesting!

Some insights:

  • Overall, it appears the total mortality (death rate) for all causes of death have nearly halved over the last 110 years. Life expectancy has nearly doubled.
  • Areas of success predominantly include infectious diseases, especially of the respiratory system.
  • Areas of concern remain heart disease and cancer. They’ve become bigger problems.
  • Deaths by influenza and pneumonia were once highest cause of death, now just a small blip on the graph (but still one of the top 10). Similarly, tuberculosis was once second on the list, but it’s been off the list since the fifties.
  • Heart disease quickly became the number one cause of death – but peaked around the 60’s, and has been declining ever since. Still number one though.
  • Cancer has increased steadily over the last 100 years. It’s said that cancer has risen because more people are living long enough to die from it. Still, even cancer deaths have dropped slightly over the last 10 years.
  • On the whole, everything on this list is heading downwards, except things that can be attributed to the fact that the population is simply getting older.

Interpret these facts as you will, but I for one am thankful for these advances in medicine. Personally, I had a bad case of pneumonia as a child. My respiratory system still isn’t great, I have minor asthma and am sensitive to many allergens, but on the whole I’m pretty healthy. I probably wouldn’t be typing these words today if it was born in 1900, because I would have had the number one cause of death at the time!

So how have we come to this? – 200 Years of Medicine

Here’s an excellent 45 minute documentary outlining 200 years of medical history, also produced by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The documentary outlines progress in three major topics: surgery (especially sanitary techniques), cancer (especially leukemia), and HIV/AIDS (and it’s social implications):

Health professionals will probably find it an especially nerdy treat. Everyone else, it’s still super informative and useful information on how medical science progresses.

Key points:

  • Medicine was once dirty and brutal, with many techniques barely well researched. Information was scarce. We’ve come a long way!
  • Surgery was insane. If you look even farther back into history, it’s even crazier. Ever heard of trepanning 2 – arguably the first surgical technique ever? Look it up.
  • Now surgery is an elegant, elaborate procedure at the forefront of medical and technological science – and can have dramatically life saving effects.
  • Cancer can be cured – but all cancers are different, and very complex. The science goes right down to the smallest biochemical compounds of our bodies, a scientific domain in which we barely understand even the tip of the iceberg. But there is hope.
  • HIV/AIDS isn’t the death sentence it once was. And by lobbying, protesting and generally kicking up a big stink against pharmaceutical companies, it seems we can get them to act right, reducing costs and improving availability. Yes, pharmaceutical companies do crappy things in the name of profit – but this doesn’t mean “mainstream medicine is evil”, it means we need to get louder and hold them accountable.

The recent history of medicine is a hopeful story. In fact, I would go as far as saying modern medical science is one of the great triumphs of the human race.

Of course, there are still many issues in the field of medicine, ranging widely from incurable diseases to issues in professional practice.

But we cannot lose sight of how far we’ve come, nor can we lose hope for the future.

Things are getting better. Let’s hope it continues this way!



ResearchBlogging.orgJones DS, Podolsky SH, & Greene JA (2012). The burden of disease and the changing task of medicine. The New England journal of medicine, 366 (25), 2333-8 PMID: 22716973

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    4 Responses to Medical Science is Getting Better

    1. ian stevens says:


      read reviews from this Historians take , very interesting . Drs have only relatively speaking being doing good things . Many of the advances are not ‘medical’ but cultural,environmental and social improvements ….just think of the big advances in preventing child mortality (hand washing ) or cholera (clean water).
      Obviously I agree with the main arguments of the triumphs of medicine which the author describes but today we are faced with huge costly problems which the current model of more medicine is unlikely to ‘fix’ (in our affluent cultures).

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hi Ian,

        This article was written to remind people not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to criticizing the health care system. Generally, things have and continue to improve substantially. And I believe it was written pretty fairly as well: throughout the article (as well as the article and video referenced), negative aspects of healthcare are highlighted – again, no one is denying it.

        Therefore, I really don’t want to get into a debate about whether medicine is good or bad. However, there are some things that I agree with you about, and some things I do not:

        First of all, I’m guessing you meant “doctors have only “recently” been doing good things”? In which case I agree. But if you really meant “relatively”, I’m not sure what you mean.

        I do agree with your sentiment that many advances we’re not “medical”, but I believe you are using the terms “medicine” and “medication” synonymously, which is very misleading. The value of hand-washing and the treatment of cholera we’re both discovered by medical professionals and researchers. Medicine isn’t just “drugs” – it also involves the study of pathophysiology, assessment, prevention, intervention (which may include drugs), and public heath policy (which contribute to these “cultural, environmental and social improvements” you mention). Furthermore, I believe you may be building a straw-man by saying “the current model of more medicine” is the agenda – perhaps it’s the model envisioned by pharmaceutical companies, but I think most people would agree that prescriptions need to decrease, and many illnesses are over-medicalized… a better solution would be “better” medicine, not “more”. It’s not fair to paint the entire medical community with the same brush.

        I’m glad the author of ‘bad medicine’ had the integrity to display critical reviews on the books website. The fact that such hostile criticism exists points out that things aren’t simple. I commend the book for pointing out major problems in medicine over history (which is more or less true; pretty much nothing worked until the last 200 years), and I’ve written about similar issues as well: ‘Why Science? Part 3 – What Could Go Wrong?’. However, this colorful history does not mean medicine is “bad”, but rather highlights the importance of careful, high quality, and ethical research. I take strong issue with any media or reporting with sensationalistic titles (such as the book you referenced) and hyperbolic, cherry picked, emotive stories used to paint medicine and science in a bad picture. I agree that real issues exist, the public deserves to know, and serious activism is needed to fight these systemic problems – but the goal should be better science. When anti-medicine and anti-science sentiment is cultivated, it can discourage people from seeking appropriate treatments – and ironically, this can lead to just as much harm as the medical mistakes being criticized.

        Modern day medical science simply deserves more credit.


    2. Ian, you make an interesting point in that some of our most serious problems are unlikely to be fixed by medicine. Many of our most serious problems have non-medical roots. Alcohol, tobacco, and obesity cause medical problems but are not caused by medical problems. While medicine may try to address those problems, the solution to them may not be medical.

      While true that handwashing and sanitation were not medical solutions to the problems of infection, they were introduced by medical people who understood their importance precisely because they understood something about infection and had ideas of how to reduce it.

      Tony, thanks for this article. I do get tired of the anti-science, anti-medicine folks who see only the problems in medicine and ignore the lives saved and ever increasing lifespans. You’ve done a nice job of concisely pointing out how far we’ve advanced in a short period of time. How many lives have antibiotics alone saved? Just that one discovery has changed human history.

      We have a lot to be grateful for. It does not mean we should ignore and continue to address any excesses, abuses, or flaws in our medical system. It means we continually examine it, hold it accountable, work to improve it.

      The alt-med field has no such scrutiny, no controls, no accountability.

      Thanks for a well-written article, Tony. I’m going to share it right now.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thank you Alice for the kind words! I too am sick of anti-science, anti-medicine fear mongering. But that issue isn’t really the point of this article.

        This article is just a reminder that “Hey – medicine is actually good! And while we don’t have all the answers, and there are big issues to solve, things are getting better”. That’s the message I am trying to convey – and I hope it comes off that way!

        If the discussion moves forward in any sort of way, I hope it isn’t an argument of “alternative medicine vs. contemporary medicine” or “is medicine bad”, or any other version of these tired, pointless, unhelpful arguments. In fact, if it does go that way, I may just delete the comments. Those discussions can take place elsewhere. Might I suggest sciencebasedmedicine.org/.

        I’d rather talk about how we can support science and research, advocate for better policy, and how we can create public awareness and understanding. Those are worthwhile discussions.

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