REFLECT

Model stories written by young professionals/students.

 

Sterility.jpg

Sterility: The Foreground for Medical Culture and Public Opinion of Medicine 

How latex gloves symbolize the culture of medicine.

 

I grew up in a world of white. Walking into my doctor’s office when I was younger, I remember inhaling the smell of hand sanitizer, seeing the white walls, white laminate and white latex gloves flooding the room. I associated these things with feelings of dread, illness, and stomachaches, just as every young child would. However, I even more distinctly remember being an awkward preteen and walking into the office after a noticeable face-lift: warm colors, an attempt to make a place that scared some people more homey, but still, white latex gloves everywhere. Sterility. If there was one word that I would use to describe medicine, it would be the concept of sterility. Sure, this is seemingly obvious, but I think the implications of this word highlight contemporary medical culture.

For the sake of simplicity, I will stick with the white latex gloves. Sure, these gloves were used in the Golden Age of medicine, and are not only applicable to today’s medical culture, but because of this, a shift in medical values can be seen with the purpose of the gloves. Gloves were used in the Golden Age of medicine to protect doctors from spreading disease, and thus were a necessary item to have in a hospital or clinical setting. However, toward the end of the Golden Age, many began to complain that there was a “social insensitivity” (Burnham 1475) among doctors, as they had lost their bedside manner and transformed into a persona of a “small businessman, who was presumably not only grasping but slightly dishonest” (Burnham1475). Burnham believes this switch of public perception was due to the elimination of the house calls and a shift to visits in a hospital or clinical setting. Because of this, the relationship between the doctor and the patient shifted, as it seemed more of like a business arrangement than a sick patient seeking help from an expert. Rothman’s opinion of this shift was similar, as he believed that “physicians have lost ability to relate to patients” (128) and often did not “desire nor [give] time to communicate with them” (128).

To me, the opinions of Burnham and Rothman directly connect to the concept of sterility. Although sterility means that something is “free from living germs or microorganicsms,” (Dictionary.com) the connotation of the word is much more important than the denotation in a medical context. With sterility comes a sense of disengagement, a lack of emotion from the physician, starkness, even hopelessness. All of these feelings can be seen when stepping foot into a hospital or a clinical setting. The concept of sterility seems almost robotic to me, which allows me to understand why public perception of physicians shifted into that of monsters who did not care about their patients. As medicine strayed further from the Golden Age, this perception continued. The foreground of medical culture in America today is this concept of sterility and keeping patients as safe as possible. We see this every time we visit the doctor, as he or she comes decked out in a white lab coat and white latex gloves. It is easy to see how people began to view doctors as less of a caretaker, as there are now several physical barriers, latex gloves being one of many, that limit patient and physician interaction.  

Latex gloves, among many others, are an important artifact of medical culture. Before the Golden Age of medicine, gloves were not used, as little information about pathogens and transmittance of disease was known. Once these principles were discovered, gloves began to be used to make sure that patients and physicians both were safe from contracting new illnesses. As there began to be a shift from house calls to a more clinical setting for medicine, the concept of sterility was seen more and more. Patients began to believe that doctors changed their mentality of their career from one that “provided a service because a patient needed it to providing a service because its profitable” (Burnham). This was seen in what seemed to be a doctor’s inability to connect and relate to patients on a deeper level, an overall disconnect. This disconnect can be illustrated with the latex gloves. Although they are simply a means of protection for both the physician and the patient, they are also a physical barrier between the two, allowing for limited contact. The lengths society has gone to protect patients has increased dramatically since the Golden Age. As patient rights and HIPAA regulations have increased, patients are better protected, but this has certainly altered the intimacy of the patient physician relationship. Patients are better protected now from disease and others learning of their medical history, but is the increase in physical barriers beginning to protect patients from physicians themselves?

Latex gloves are one of the many examples present in today’s medical culture that highlight the concept of sterility, and the overall concept that is seen in the public’s perception of physician and patient interaction today. 

—Kennedy Karem

“Sterility.” Dictionary.com. 27 January 2016. Web.

David J. Rothman, Chapter 7, “The Doctor as Stranger.” In Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making (Basic Books, 1991).

John C. Burnham, “American Medicine’s Golden Age: What Happened to It?” Science 215, no. 4539 (1982), 1474-1479.