Summertime, Timing, Planning, and Boring Medicine

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer. This weekend also brought me in touch with some other markers of time, including:

  • A great celebration of life event for the passing of a friend’s father – a terrific gentle bear of a man who had faded away in recent years after more than four score years
  • A double birthday party for the children of some friends – a 9 year old and a first birthday
  • Senator Kennedy’s long tenure and track-record of accomplishments – which were chronicled in many news reports following his being diagnosed with a brain tumor

I was also reminded of the importance of planning over time by a recent op-ed that mentioned a national organization’s call for increasing medical school enrollment in order to avoid a future shortage of physicians. Since the time from the start of medical school to the end of clinical training is generally 7-10 years, this pipeline is similar to the process for developing drugs. Each require many years for the development process as well as for increasing output capacity – which are both limited by money and other resources (trained people, physical structures and equipment).

However, because increasing this output capacity takes time, it is important to invest in them before the need is there. Senator Kennedy has understood that for decades, as has been evident by his long support for biomedical research funding. We can only hope that it will provide substantial benefits to him in his latest fight. And if not, then the hope is that these investments will benefit the generation of the birthday celebrants from last weekend. I believe this will happen since decades ago cancer was seen as a dreaded diagnosis, but now for many patients, it is curable or manageable – just ask, John Lester, the Red Sox pitcher who went from cancer patient to pitching a no-hitter in less than 2 years. And the hope for the future is that if the family or friends of today’s nine year olds have to face cancer in several decades, they will be able to use one of their favorite words of today – “boring.” (“School is boring.” “The beach is boring.” “That’s boring.” “This is boring.”)

The promise of today’s research into cancer and other diseases is that over time, treatments will become boring. Boring is the best type of medical problem to have, because it indicates that it’s treatment is so routine, easy and palatable that both the physician and the patient have no anxiety about it.

Past research and development weren’t enough for my friend’s father – who had a terrific life and shared Senator Kennedy’s passion for sailing. Time will tell if the last few decades of research were enough to make Senator Kennedy’s treatment boring. As summertime comes and goes this year and next, here’s hoping that more and more of the medical problems we and our families see are boring. I think it is fitting that as Memorial Day 2008 passes, we recognize these events and promises of the future, and remember what has been, but also what can possibly be.


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