One of my recent posts prompted the following comment from a chiropractor: “… please don’t let me stop you…while we actually treat patients“. It was given in the context of a debate about the evidence for or against chiropractic spinal manipulations as a treatment of whiplash injuries. My position was that there is no convincing evidence, while the chiropractor argued that he has been using manipulations for this indication with good results. Here I do not want to re-visit the pros and cons of that particular debate. Since similar objections have been put to me so many times, I want rather to raise several more principal points.
Before I do this, I need to quickly get the personal stuff out of the way: the comment implies that I don’t really know what I am talking about because I don’t see patients and thus don’t understand their needs. The truth is that I started my professional life as a clinician, then I went into basic science, then I went back into clinical medicine (while also doing research), and eventually, I became a full-time clinical researcher. I have thus seen plenty of patients, certainly enough to empathize with both the needs of patients and the reasoning of clinicians. In fact, these provided the motives for my clinical research during the last decades of my professional career (more details here).
Now about the real issue that is at stake here. When offered by a clinician to a scientist, the comment “… please don’t let me stop you…while we actually treat patients” is an expression of an arrogant feeling of superiority that clinicians often harbor vis a vis professionals who are not at the ‘coal face’ of healthcare. Stripped down to its core, the argument implies that science is fairly useless because the only knowledge worth having stems from dealing with patients. In other words, it is about the tension that so often exists between clinical experience and scientific evidence.
Many clinicians feel that experience is the best guide to correct decision-making.
Many scientists feel that experience is fraught with errors, and only science can lead us towards optimal decisions.
Such arguments emerge regularly on this blog and are constant company to almost any type of healthcare. The question is, who is right and who is wrong?
As I indicated, I can empathize with both positions. I can see that, in the context of making therapeutic decisions in a busy clinic, for instance, the clinician’s argument weighs heavily and can make sense, particularly in areas where the evidence is mixed, weak, or uncertain.
However, in the context of this blog and other discussions focused on critical evaluation of the science, I am strongly on the side of the scientist. In fact, in this context, the argument “… please don’t let me stop you…while we actually treat patients” seems ridiculous and resembles an embarrassing admission of having no rational argument left for defending one’s own position.
To put my view of this in a nutshell: it is not a question of either or; for optimal healthcare, we obviously need both clinical experience AND scientific evidence (an insight that is not in the slightest original, since it is even part of Sackett’s definition of EBM).