Milton Packer highlights the rediscovery of a 1,000-year-old cure for medical elitism
By Dr. Milton Packer
For most of human history, people did not see the expertise of a physician in the hope of a cure. Physicians relied on patients’ natural healing processes for recovery. Doctors primarily provided comfort — by the compassionate communication of a diagnosis, often accompanied by the symbolic prescription of herbs and salves. The physician acted as a supportive guide to the unfolding of a natural course of events.
This approach is embodied in the many quotations attributed to Hippocrates. “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease.” “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” “Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.”
But in the first millennium C.E., physicians were in short supply. The talented few lived an elitist existence, typically attached to wealthy or powerful royal families. Famed physicians, such as Galen and Avicenna, were able to formulate ideas and write books, because they were supported by wealthy patrons.
Who provided medical care for the common man, especially the poor? With no access to physicians, the poor turned to the clergy, who spent much of their time practicing medicine. Building on existing relationships of trust, priests could attend to someone’s physical and spiritual needs simultaneously. However, the Church believed that spiritual men should not be focused on worldly cares. Thus, during the latter half of the 12th century, it insisted that priests were “expert physicians of souls rather than to cure bodies.” The practice of medicine was strictly forbidden, especially when it required cutting or burning.
So where would a “commoner” go if he/she required some procedural intervention? Barbers — with their expertise with knives and razors — stepped up to fill the need, by offering a wide range of surgical procedures to their customers. On a given day, they might provide a haircut, an amputation, a tooth extraction, or the application of leeches. All of these filled the barbershop with blood and bandages. When wrapped around a pole, they formed a spiral of red and white stripes, and voilà! The modern barbershop pole was born. (Barbershop poles in the U.S. added a blue stripe — for patriotic reasons.)
From the 12th century onwards, the expertise and practices of physicians and barbers became distinct, leading to a troubled relationship between the two groups. Physicians who received university training believed they had privileged access to specialized knowledge and felt superior to the barbers, who had no specialized education and treated only commoners. To highlight the distinction, physicians insisted that they wear long robes, while barbers could wear only short robes. The practice of long white coats for physicians and short white jackets for barbers persisted into the late 20th century.
Surgeons eventually differentiated themselves from barbers in the 17th and 18th centuries, but physicians and surgeons remained distinct specialties for several hundred years. When surgeons eventually commingled with physicians at medical schools, they wore long white coats — to emphasize to the world that they were not barbers, but were now part of an elite profession.
The elitism of physicians and surgeons provided great satisfaction to those with a medical degree, but it provided little comfort to patients. From the 1940s through the 1970s, the relationship between doctors and patients was distinctly hierarchical. Physicians presented themselves as the authoritative source of medical knowledge, and did not expect to have their recommendations questioned. That is not to say that physicians lacked compassion. Indeed, if a patient could find a knowledgeable and kind medical doctor, the bond between the two was therapeutically powerful. Under these ideal circumstances, physicians could provide both comfort and a cure, and in return, patients provided gratitude and trust. That trust was the centerpiece of the therapeutic relationship.
However, over the past 30 years, much of the trust that grounded the patient-physician relationship has been shattered. Today, physicians often seem determined to spend as little time with patients as possible. The history and physical exam are perfunctory, and questions are frequently swatted away. All too often, physicians seem more interested in generating revenues than listening to patients. In response, admiration for physicians has waned; and patients have become suspicious of physicians’ motives when prescribing medications or recommending procedures. Adherence to medications is abysmally low.
Adherence is particularly problematic when people need to take multiple medications on a daily basis for years for an asymptomatic condition, such as hypertension. Hypertension is an important and treatable cardiovascular risk factor, but it is poorly controlled in the community — particularly in socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, who are particularly susceptible to hypertension and its sequelae, and are also often mistrustful of their interactions with the medical profession.
How can this problem be resolved? Dr. Ronald Victor, a hypertension specialist, came up with a brilliant idea. What if we could identify a trusted individual within the underserved community who could be trained to measure blood pressures and provide emotional support for treatment? People would interact with this trusted individual on a regular basis to obtain repeated measurements of blood pressure and reinforce the use of medications.
Ron Victor’s solution was the barbershop. The barbershop plays a central role in the social fabric of black men in underserved communities. Men visit barbershops on a regular basis, and each has a relationship of trust with his barber, established through repeated (and often personal) conversations that transpire during the haircuts. As a result, the barber was perfectly positioned to measure the blood pressure of every client at regular visits, and then could immediately connect those with hypertension to specially-trained pharmacists who would prescribe generic medications on site.
Dr. Victor and his colleagues carried out a cluster randomized trial to prove that his idea would work. A total of 319 black male patrons with hypertension were recruited from 52 black-owned barbershops. In half of the barbershops, men were assigned to the barber-pharmacist intervention, and in the other half, barbers simply encouraged lifestyle modification and doctor appointments. After 6 months, a blood-pressure level of less than 130/80 mm Hg was achieved among 64% of the participants in the intervention group versus only 12% of the participants in the control group. A truly dramatic result!
Why did Ron Victor’s idea work? The men paid attention to their blood pressure and took their medications because the treatment was based on a relationship of trust and transpired in a place of trust. By contrast, their hypertension was not controlled if the men were simply reminded to see their physicians.
The historic parallels are striking. About 1,000 years ago, barbers stepped up to provide essential medical care to underserved communities who had no access to academically-trained physicians. Now, barbers are stepping up again as trusted members of the community to link people to essential treatments that they would be reluctant to take if prescribed by a physician.
In many ways, the divide between those who provide care and those who need it has not changed over the past 1,000 years. Ten centuries ago, academically-trained physicians were not interested in treating commoners. In the current era, underserved populations do not trust physicians to care for them, perhaps because they believe that physicians are driven by self-interest. The patterns of disconnect a millennium apart are eerily similar.
I was privileged to know and work with Ron Victor when we were both at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School (2004-2009). He was an exceptionally talented and heroic physician-scientist, whose brilliance, innovation, compassion, and humility were beyond words.
Ron Victor died in September 2018 in Los Angeles. His contributions to medicine are numerous, but perhaps most importantly, his work reminded us of the clinical and social consequences of medical elitism, for which he provided a path towards rectification. He is sorely missed.
Packer recently consulted for Actavis, Akcea, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Cardiorentis, Daiichi Sankyo, Gilead, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Sanofi, Synthetic Biologics, and Takeda. He chairs the EMPEROR Executive Committee for trials of empagliflozin for the treatment of heart failure. He was previously the co-PI of the PARADIGM-HF trial and serves on the Steering Committee of the PARAGON-HF trial, but has no financial relationship with Novartis.