How can doctors possibly keep in touch with all they need to know?by Geoff Watts / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Medicine and gardening have much in common, and the parallels in the accumulation and use of knowledge can be illuminating. Years of listening to Gardeners’ Question Time have left me humbled at the breadth of the learning of some gardeners. I will never know how many species of plant are native to this country, but the panellists know them all.
They know what kind of soil each plant prefers, how much light, what temperature, when it should be bedded out, when fertilised, if and by how much it needs pruning and what insects victimise it. And they seem to have had direct experience of all but a few of the shrubs, saplings and seedlings on which they pontificate. It is always, “I find that such and such a mulch makes ideal conditions for growing azaleas,” or “My Lysimachia nummularia does best under damp and shady conditions”-the personal pronoun reminding us that this is horse’s mouth advice.
I used to take it all at face value. I was impressed that anyone could know so much. But then I began to have doubts. How accurate are these tips? How many times has this or that smidgen of advice been tested empirically? Given the number of plant varieties, and the countless possible combinations of water, sunlight, nutrients and Lord-knows-what-else capable of influencing growth, any one person’s experience must be limited. The sum total of horticultural knowledge may well be vast, but it is neither well organised, nor readily available. The more you think about the hints of the gardening experts, the more you wonder how much they are bluffing.
In the end, though, if your weeping willow does not so much weep as sob, if your climbing hydrangeas fall to their death, if your dwarf winter irises are less dwarf than stunted-well, after all, they are only plants.
When it comes to medical knowledge, the doctors’ problems leave gardeners in the shade. Medical facts may be more systematically organised and stored than gardening wisdom, but they are also available in overwhelming quantity. And if faulty advice does lead to failed treatment, “They’re only patients,” is poor mitigation in a General Medical Council disciplinary hearing.
By and large, doctors have responded to burgeoning medical know-how in two ways. One is, in principle, sensible: dividing the territory into specialisms and sub-specialisms in the hope of restricting each to an arena within which it really…