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story:Medicine as new technology

scene:Medicine as new technology


CT brain scanner, 1970-1. Patients describe feelings of trust and fear towards high-tech medical devices such as scanners, ventilators and dialysis machines. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Medical technology is today a feature not just of hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries but also of homes. The practice of medicine has been revolutionised by computers, digitisation, new materials and good old-fashioned laboratory research. Yet this has been accompanied by increased patient anxiety about the risks and consequences of medical intervention.

The introduction of new medical technology has not been so rapid in developing countries, but the sense of ambivalence is the same – technology represents both progress and threat. In countries with multiple healing systems patients can choose whom to consult, depending on their illness. In these countries a technological approach may be chosen as a first or last resort.


Castle of pills built by the East London Health Project, 1978-80. In the UK, the limited availability of expensive drugs in particular Health Authorities led to complaints about ‘postcode prescribing’. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

In Britain alternative therapies are becoming more popular, but this is combined with a stronger sense of entitlement to technological medicine. Patients expect to be offered up-to-date technology and have a belief that exclusion is unethical or negligent.

This sense of entitlement applies mostly to proven technologies where the benefit is widely accepted. But fear of risks, consequences and side effects usually accompanies the introduction of newly developed technologies. At what point do these technologies become accepted and why? When are patients convinced that technology is benevolent rather than malevolent?


Measuring spoon for oral rehydration therapy, 1981. Often low-tech is more appropriate – a measure of sugar and salt in a cup of water is effective and affordable. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Here we look at the patient’s relationship with technology in medicine. Through imaging technology, insulin pens, ‘wonder drugs’ and the notion of ‘appropriate technology’ we will explore patients’ feelings of fear, trust and entitlement towards medical technology.

Resource Descriptions

CT brain scanner, 1970-1. Patients describe feelings of trust and fear towards high-tech medical devices such as scanners, ventilators and dialysis machines.
Castle of pills built by the East London Health Project, 1978-80. In the UK, the limited availability of expensive drugs in particular Health Authorities led to complaints about ‘postcode prescribing’.
Measuring spoon for oral rehydration therapy, 1981. Often low-tech is more appropriate – a measure of sugar and salt in a cup of water is effective and affordable.
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