Before we had EBM (evidence-based medicine) we had another kind of EBM: experience-based medicine. Mark Crislip has said that the three most dangerous words in medicine are “In my experience.” I agree wholeheartedly. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to discount experience entirely. Dynamite is dangerous too, but when handled with proper safety precautions it can be very useful in mining, road-building, and other endeavors.
When I was in med school, the professor would say “In my experience, drug A works better than drug B.” and we would take careful notes, follow his lead, and prescribe drug A unquestioningly. That is no longer acceptable. Today we ask for controlled studies that objectively compare drug A to drug B. That doesn’t mean the professor’s observations were entirely useless: experience, like anecdotes, can draw attention to things that are worth evaluating with the scientific method.
We don’t always have the pertinent scientific studies needed to make a clinical decision. When there is no hard evidence, a clinician’s experience may be all we have to go on. Knowing that a patient with disease X got better following treatment Y is a step above having no knowledge at all about X or Y. A small step, but arguably better than no step at all.
Experience is valuable in other ways. First, there’s the “been there, done that” phenomenon. Older doctors have seen more: they may recognize a diagnosis that less experienced doctors simply have never encountered. My dermatology professor in med school told us about a patient who had stumped him: she had an unusual dermatitis of her hands that was worst on her thumb and index finger. His father, also a doctor, asked her if she had geraniums at home. She did. She had been plucking off the dead leaves and was reacting to a chemical in the leaves. The older doctor had seen it before; his son hadn’t. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*