Patient Contributions

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“Hi Miss X, I am Dr. A, how are you today? This is Z; she is a student and is here to shadow me. Would it be okay with you if she stays in the room during our appointment today?”

I have been on both sides of this conversation. I have been the patient being asked permission to and the student being asked permission for. Usually the patient’s reply is an enthusiastic empathetic “yes”. Doctor-patient interactions are valuable learning tools for medical students or students interested in medicine.

Learning from an actor faking the symptoms or a dummy programmed to emulate the symptoms cannot substitute valued patient interactions. Each interaction with a patient, in a small but cumulative way turns a medical student into a competent doctor. They understand by doing, they learn with every case.

Patients, with every hospital visit, don’t just contribute to medical education but also play a vital role in clinical research.

Take clinical trials for instance. Currently there are 172,625 registered clinical studies. According to a recent statistic by University of Pennsylvania, about 5 percent of cancer patients participate in clinical trials. Clinical trials are the key to finding new cancer treatments.

Without sufficient patient participation, would any clinical trial ever yield statistically significant or sufficient data for the drug to be approved? Without drug approval, there would be no progress in medicine. We would be using drugs and therapies discovered in the 1900’s. But that’s not the case.

Although this miniscule triumph over skepticism toward experimental drugs and therapies is to be attributed to the fact that over the past few years, the FDA has tightened the ropes by closely monitoring the clinical trial process and being extremely stringent with the drug approval process.

But I digress…

There have been a few patients in history whose contributions have led to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

Henry Molaison (famously known as H.M.) and Kent Cochrane (also known as K.C.) the world’s two most famous amnesiac’s, have taught the world about memory.

H.M. was an epileptic patient, who lost the power of developing long-term memories after a remedial procedure to treat his epilepsy removed his medial temporal lobes and a large part of the hippocampus. In all the interviews that I have read, Henry Molaison has been described as a person who (though he could not remember a person after they exited the room) was always enthusiastic and willing to help scientists understand and learn from his condition.

Patient K.C. on the other hand lost the ability to make new memories or connect emotional value to old memories after he lost both his hippocampi in a tragic accident.

Both of these cases have taught scientists incredible things about the way memories are formed and stored and how our brain associates emotional significance to memories.

Over the past few years, Henrietta Lacks has indirectly been the savior of countless lives. Cells isolated from Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer, known as HeLa cells, in 1951 are till date being used in research labs all around the globe and even in space. HeLa cells were the first human cell line to be immortalized outside the human body.

Although the Lacks family wasn’t aware of the cell isolation at the time they were taken, 62 years later the Lacks family has finally given their consent to the use of the HeLa genome. Although there have been ethical concerns about the way the cells were obtained, I would not be entirely wrong in saying that without HeLa cells, biomedical research would not have seen the advances that it has over the past few decades.

Many of us remember Dr. Wilder Penfield for his brilliant contributions to the field of neuroscience, as a discoverer for the surgical treatment of epilepsy. And although it was his brilliance that led to the creation of a map connecting regions of the brain to the body parts they control, could he have discovered the secrets of the brain without willing research participants?

Behind every scientific discovery are three entities: doctors, researchers and the people putting their lives on the line – the patients.

But, patients don’t get enough credit. So here it is. Thank you, to anyone who has ever taken part in a clinical study, or answered a health questionnaire, or donated any sort of biological material for research. You have legitimately done something good. You have saved someone’s life.

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