How much does Medical Science actually know?

I was presented with this question by my Brother-in-law during a wedding meal. Danny is a deep thinker and his mind is preoccupied with these sorts of interesting questions, although his timing can sometimes be awkward. Working hard for many years in the financial sector probably created the need for his mind to wander towards more philosophical questions. My first reaction was to say: that is actually a very good question Danny. I meant it. In one form or another, this is an issue that I myself have been thinking about a lot. His actual words were: “what is the percentage of knowledge modern medicine possesses regarding the human body and human health in relation to the complete picture”? Under the circumstances I didn’t have much time to think it through. I just said 70:30- 70% known, 30% unknown. Ten, Danny replied, 10% known, 90% unknown. His complete self-confidence about the issue initially made me feel a bit uncomfortable. There I am, probably the person most qualified to answer this question. As a medical doctor I have a comprehensive understanding of modern medical science. On the other hand, practising Chinese medicine for 22 years now has made me acutely aware of the deficiencies and holes in the scientific medical understanding of the human body and of human health. Danny, however, is not a medical doctor and neither does he have any qualifications which relate in any way to the modern science of medicine. How can he be so confidant in his assessment of 90% / 10%? I passed these thoughts on to him, in a polite manner of course, so as not to create an insult. Luckily he wasn’t insulted at all, but he stuck to his assessment and gave me all sorts of explanations to support it. I am not sure that I understood (probably my concentration was waning away at that stage) but to my surprise, over the next few days, this question kept on popping into my head and I found myself increasingly preoccupied with it. I felt my initial assessment was probably biased. It has been influenced by an innate sense of respect for science. It seems incomprehensible to claim that scientific knowledge about the working of the body and the mechanism of disease and ailments is just a fraction of reality but is it? Most doctors believe that medicine and science know pretty much everything about the human body. On one level this is true. The knowledge about the chemical structure of the human body is almost complete and on that level we know exactly what we are made of and how we work.
However, if this is the whole picture then how come modern medicine can only cure a very small percentage of the diseases, ailments and symptoms that affect us? Most medical conditions can only be helped by suppressing symptoms. Medicine that actually has a beneficial effect on the progress of any chronic conditions is rare. Most of the medicines given for chronic conditions can help a bit with the symptoms but long term will do much more damage than good! If doctors have such a complete understanding of the human body then how come they can’t cure or even slow the progress of most chronic ailments? Something that Danny said came back to me then:10% is the fraction of diseases that doctors can actually cure. That’s where the figure of 10% knowledge came from. I remember studying pathology in medicine school. It was the first time the limitation of modern medicine started to hit home. I was reading the text book and was very surprised to see that with almost all the medical conditions under the title of aetiology (the cause of the condition) you can find a few entries, usually about six to eight. There was the Viral theory, the Environmental theory, the Lifestyle theory, the Genetic theory and so on. So which one of these is the cause of the condition? It has suddenly dawned on me that modern medical science simply doesn’t know, in most cases, why we are getting ill. Yes it can give a very accurate description of what is happening to the body when the disease is already active but the reason, the cause, the process that led to the rising up of the condition, is largely unknown! It wouldn’t be a great leap of logic to make the connection between the lack of knowledge about the aetiology of a condition and the lack of ability to find a cure for it. In other words, if you can only see the symptoms then you can only treat the symptoms.
The more I was thinking about it the more I was realising that the percentage of knowledge figures in my mind are gradually moving more towards Danny’s estimate of 10:90 and away from my over trusting 70:30. On top of the almost complete ignorance regarding the cause of disease there is the whole area of subtle influences on the human body- the movement of energy, heat, cold, dryness and dampness-these are basic considerations in my clinic on a daily basis yet are completely unknown to modern doctors. There is the subtle working of the organs e.g. the connection between the liver and the mood. Then there is the huge effect of the emotions and stress on our bodily function and health, and the link between spirituality and health. I am sure there are many other aspects that we don’t even know about. All have a massive importance in determining human health yet all are completely ignored by modern medical science. The list goes on and on. It is very clear to me that, regarding modern medical knowledge, the unknown is much bigger than the known. I wouldn’t like to put a figure or a percentage on it and of course I can’t be that accurate, but I think the principle is important. I always say that doctors are very important but they will be even better if they are more humble and honest with themselves regarding their limitations. The attitude of “I know everything there is to know about human health and therefore can and should treat every patient that is coming to my clinic” is, frankly, dangerous and damaging. It probably causes many unnecessary sufferings and deaths. Most modern medical treatments have, unfortunately, a wide range of side effects and should, in my opinion, be used only if other safer and less damaging treatments have not worked.
I feel this is why this question is so important. It has far reaching implications. Modern doctors should be educated to understand the fact that existing medical knowledge, as vast and impressive as it is, is far from being complete. They should be brought up to be humble and open in their approach to understanding and restoring human health. Most importantly they should be very aware of the damage caused by medications and procedures and of the fact that there are safe and effective alternatives.
These issues didn’t get a mention during my years in medical school and I suspect they don’t feature in current medical school curriculum’s. We can only hope this will change as people’s awareness and knowledge grows.

Best of health everyone,